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Review: 'Omar' is heartbreaking tale of love across isolation walls

There are two distinct images that open "Omar." One is a face; one is a wall.

Both are as resilient as resistant — defining elements and powerful metaphors for all that connects and divides us in Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad's unnerving new drama.

The film first drew attention during last May's Cannes Film Festival where it was the Un Certain Regard jury winner. Now it is in a tight race for the foreign-language Oscar.

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The face is Omar's, portrayed by newcomer Adam Bakri, an excellent find for the filmmaker who relies on him to carry the emotional weight of this difficult movie. The wall is one of the so-called isolation walls that crisscross the Israeli-occupied West Bank, sometimes dividing one city from another, sometimes one neighborhood from another.

For Omar, the isolation wall separates him from Nadia (Leem Lubany), the young woman he loves.

But walls are made for scaling and within seconds he scrambles over, outruns security forces and is knocking on Nadia's door, ostensibly to see her older brother. Tarek (Eyad Hourani) is a friend from childhood who's grown up to be a major player in the local resistance.

Now the film settles into laying out Omar's dilemmas. Tarek talks of the young men's training — Omar and Amjad (Samer Bisharat), another of their boyhood friends, are not yet in the fighting ranks. Skills must be honed; loyalty must be proved. The conversation is striking for its very ordinariness, as if the chance of rain were being discussed, with Amjad the jokester, doing a Brando impression for his coffee and Nadia passing a note to Omar along with his cup.

It is difficult to figure out which is the film's more pressing theme — the power of love to change the course of a life, or the political and social realities of living in occupied territory. They are so tightly intertwined; perhaps the point is that they cannot be separated. No isolation walls for ideas or emotions.

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As with 2005's "Paradise Now," Abu-Assad's critically praised but much debated film about suicide bombers, the writer-director does not make it easy to choose sides. Violence is meted out by both. Though his sentiments clearly lie with the Palestinians, the Middle East is a complex place where, as the saying goes, one man's freedom fighter is another's terrorist. The ambiguity Abu-Assad uses to keep the lines at least somewhat blurry makes the film more challenging, and no doubt to some, more frustrating.

Omar, however, is easy to like. He's a romantic pushed by circumstances and small humiliations into a role he is neither prepared for nor, arguably, deserves. If the choices were all his, he would live out his life as a baker, marry Nadia, raise a family and write stories.

But they are not. Omar is soon caught in a police sweep after the killing of an Israeli soldier, tortured and possibly turned into an informant by agent Rami (Waleed Zuaiter).

At this point the film moves from love story into something more akin to a street-level espionage thriller. The cat-and-mouse game between Omar and Rami is fascinating to watch. Neither trusts the other and you're never sure who is playing whom. Zuaiter, a veteran stage and screen actor ("The Men Who Stare at Goats," "Homeland"), elevates every scene he is in.

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Shot in Israel and the West Bank, the film has an almost documentary feel to it, with Ehab Assal, who worked with Abu-Assad on "Paradise Now," serving as director of photography. The narrow streets, the graffiti-covered walls, the constant human traffic across them, the safety behind closed doors, keep the vibe shifting between tense and slack. For all the darkness in the story, the screen is more often filled with light, the sun-baked ethos of a desert town. Inside the prison walls it goes darker, grayer, as if life itself is fading away.

One of Abu-Assad's great strengths as both writer and director is the way in which he uses the most fundamental human exchanges to build complex situations and to set up major turning points. Omar's courtship of Nadia is filled with a tenderness that leaves no question that the man is in love. Once imprisoned, Omar's indecision over where his loyalties lie represents a kind of torture that may leave more scars than the beatings.

Bakri is remarkable at moving through such diverse emotional waters. The depth of Omar's feelings about Nadia seen in simple gestures — the eyelash brushed from her cheek, or the rebellion of a clinched jaw — contradicts any cooperation with agent Rami.

What happens when Omar is outside the prison walls, and how his world and his relationships are reshaped by the realities of broken trust and betrayal, make for gripping and heartbreaking watching. Yet for all the film is saying about what it is like living under Israeli occupation, it says more about the measure of true love.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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'Omar'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes; Arabic, Hebrew with English subtitles

Playing: In select theaters

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