ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Art house movie audiences will experience double vision in the next couple of weeks, two movies about Palestinian informants for Israel's secret service. One was directed by a Palestinian, the other by an Israeli. The Palestinian film, "Omar," is nominated for an Academy Award. The Israeli film, "Bethlehem," comes decorated with prizes from European festivals. Critic Bob Mondello found their similarities as intriguing as their differences.
BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Both films start with gunfire, Palestinian teenagers using a rural street sign for target practice in "Bethlehem," Israeli soldiers using the title character for target practice in "Omar." Actually, I'm being too glib there. Omar, a Palestinian baker by trade, is scaling the Israeli-built wall that slices through his community when he's shot at. He is a genuine target, not target practice.
But the place, a biblical landscape pierced by gunfire, feels identical in the two films, as do their basic outlines. In each, a militant Palestinian youngster is forced to rat out his friends to an Israeli secret service agent. In each, the young man's relationship with his friends and his agent become fraught and complicated. In each, the price of betrayal will be measured in blood.
But as the titles "Omar" and "Bethlehem" suggest, the films come at their stories from very different angles. The Palestinian film, "Omar," is intimate, centering on its young baker who wants to marry a girl named Nadia on the other side of the wall.
(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "OMAR")
MONDELLO: Only later does it expand to include his community. The Israeli film, "Bethlehem," takes the opposite tack, concentrating primarily on an unraveling social fabric then detailing what that unraveling means for a troubled teenager who's desperate to prove himself.
(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "BETHLEHEM")
MONDELLO: While the films are equally earnest, they are not equally accomplished. "Bethlehem" is a very promising debut for its first-time actors and Israeli director, but it's a little slack at first, and oddly the thriller tricks it uses to ratchet up the tension later, like musical underscoring, keep it from sneaking past your defenses.
"Omar" gets past them mostly by being an effective nail-biter of a personal story. It was written and directed by Hany Abu Assad, who addressed similar tensions a few years ago in "Paradise Now." You know how some films feel so real that you scan the headlines the next morning to see if there are any new development in their stories? "Omar" had me doing that and had me finding, tragically, plenty of parallels in the real world that both these movies arise from. I'm Bob Mondello.