“Is there someone else?” Omar (Adam Bakri) worries that his girlfriend Nadja (Leem Lubany) has been distracted. She smiles exquisitely, then doesn’t quite assure him. “Who else? Who would there be?” she teases, “Oh! You mean Brad Pitt!”
Nadja’s joke is at once cute and telling in Omar, Palestine’s nominee for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, as was director Hany Abu-Assad’s 2005 film, Paradise Now. The two films share a subject matter that is as urgent now as it was then, that is, young Palestinians’ struggle under Israeli occupation. Where the earlier film focused on the complicated anxieties driving a pair of suicide bombers, this one reveals that as the trauma of the occupation has become pervasive and mundane, the topic of schoolyard conversations, it shapes the ways kids see themselves and their limited possibilities.
Still, Nadia and Omar give themselves over to romance, as intricate and delicate as any Brad Pitt might embody. And they are keeping their romance secret, in particular from her older brother Tarek (Eyad Hourani). This makes for a difficult balance, as Tarek heads up a small resistance unit whose members include Omar and another childhood friend, Amjad (Samer Bisharat); the unit is also secret, of course, though not from Nadia and other immediate community members, who see the group’s work as righteous and do what they can to support it.
That Nadia first appears in the film as she serves tea to the group when they meet in her family’s home reveals subtle tensions: she and Omar exchange glances and careful smiles, their focus plainly on one another even as the group is planning to kill an Israeli soldier. Omar’s vision of a future with Nadia, “settled down,” has precious little to do with what he’s doing with the resistance, but like any teen who watches Hollywood movies, he’s not inclined to ponder dire consequences.
Their naïvete is compounded by their forever-war surroundings. This is made vivid at film’s start, when Omar first appears scaling the graffitied wall between his neighborhood and the Israeli territory where Tarek and Nadia live, the rope he uses causing bloody damage when, on hearing a siren and gunshots, he’s got to dash for cover, running through narrow alleys and up and down stone stairways as he expertly makes his escape. The camera runs along behind him here, positioning you both as pursuer and fellow escapee, a participant in chaos, unable to do much else but continue racing headlong.
An introduction to Omar’s diurnal turmoil, the zig-zaggedy careening that is his life, the scene is stunning in several senses: when he turns to face the camera and you see him in close-up, breathing hard and calmly noting his injuries, you see how impossible and inevitable this life must be. Omar’s participation in the soldier’s shooting is of a piece with such experience.
Even as he promises Nadia he’ll ask Tarek’s permission for their marriage “soon”, and that he’ll be taking her on a honeymoon to Mozambique, neither he nor Nadia imagines the murder will change their course. Such horrors take place daily, the rituals and realities of growing up here and now.
When things do go wrong, and Omar is captured by the Israelis, he faces another set of non-options. In prison he’s coerced by Rami (Waleed F. Zuaiter), an Israeli agent who threatens Nadia if Omar refuses to collaborate. At first, Omar believes he can keep faith with his compatriots and keep Rami at bay. But as his plans fall apart at each of several steps, as his faith becomes a point of debate among those he loves and to whom he remains devoted, Omar confronts a whole other set of non-options.
These unfold as a series of unexpected turns, in Omar‘s plot and also in its phenomenal visual architecture. The camera does its best to keep up with Omar as he negotiates and renegotiates: the backdrop to a pay phone call offers the grim specter of a billboard that suggests the settlements are “Planting Hope”, while his uneasy surveillance of Nadia with friends in their school uniforms suggests she’s not precisely as faithful as he might hope. Her revelation that her classmates are suggesting he’s a collaborator is the worst possible story that might circulate, and yet he’s unable to expose himself fully, unable to trust Nadia or Tarek, much less Rami.
On his own, Omar is perpetually caught between walls and fences, again and again framed by windows and doorways. While he continues to dream he might “settle down” with Nadia — the choice of words seems especially disconcerting, in the English translation, anyway — all that occurs around Omar argues against it. There is no resolution in sight, no good outcome, only more chaos, more distrust, and more struggle.
Still, you can see how he might desire otherwise, how he might imagine a movie-like ending where he’s able to transform his world, like Brad Pitt might do. That Omar maintains so many possibilities for so long, reflecting Omar’s hopes if not his complete understanding, is its own remarkable difficult balance.