So, an Arab and a Jew team up to make a movie about life in the Middle East ...

I know it sounds like the set-up for one of my dads jokes, but this really is the story behind Ajami, a nerve-jangling crime drama set in the Tel Aviv suburb, Jaffa. One of this years five Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language Film, the movie is a collaboration between co-writers and co-directors Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, chronicling the countless ways sectarian strife creeps into and poisons everythingeven in the underworld. Surviving in this neighborhood is hard enough without having to take part in a Holy War.

Omar (Shahair Kabaha) is a decent young man who tries to mind his own business, until his uncle makes the mistake of shooting a Bedouin gang-banger in self-defense. Thanks to the omnivorous, crooked logic of hoodlums from religious backgrounds, this makes Omar a marked manunless hes willing to purchase an expensive peace settlement. Doing so puts him in the pocket of sinister Abu Elias (Youssef Sahwani), a portly crime boss who presides over a neighborhood caf with Sydney Greenstreets oily lan.

Abu Elias works awfully hard at coming off kindly and paternal, but obviously hes the kind of guy you dont want to owe any favors. This holds doubly true for Omar, enmeshed in a messy, secret courtship with Elias daughter Hadir (Ranin Karim). To say nothing of the class divide, shes a Christian and hes a Muslim. Romeo and Juliet had it easy.

Teenage dishwasher Malek (Ibrahim Frege) also relies on Elias suspicious generosity. A good-natured kid wanted by the police for reasons that are never quite made clear, the youngster sleeps in the cafs storage container, working illegally in the kitchen to try and muster up enough money for his sickly mothers bone-marrow transplant. (For all its high-minded attentions and gritty realism, Ajami obviously isnt above stacking the deck with melodramatic flourishes.)

On the other side of town, hulking, quick-tempered cop Dando (Eran Naim) is coming apart at the seams. His kid brother is an Israeli soldier gone missing, presumably kidnapped by Palestinian militants. The movie makes it clear that Dandos day job working the mean streets is already volatile enough, adding to the simmering ideological resentments is a formula for disaster.

Meanwhile, poor Binj (played very well by co-director Copti) would rather just get high and hit the Tel Aviv nightclubs with his hot Jewish girlfriend. Alas, his more dogmatic Arab pals hardly approve, and its in this subplot Ajami feels the most genuine, questioning concepts of identity and ethnicity in an increasingly multicultural world. But then Binj happens upon a bag of stolen drugs that ties these separate story threads together in bloodshed.

Copti and Shani have broken Ajami into six overlapping chapters, each following a different protagonist on a slightly skewed timeline. On one hand the choice makes sense, as the characters often make reckless decisions based on limited information. Its easy to empathize with their motivations when we know as little as they do. But as more information is revealed, the interlocking puzzle structure starts to seem gimmicky and cheap.

Im growing weary of fractured timeline narratives in general. Too often theyre used as card-trick diversions to gloss over ludicrous plot contrivances (a la Guillermo Arriagas recent artistic dead end) and usually I find such films tend to feel smaller when all the pieces start clicking neatly into place. Ajami has such a vivid sense of place, and its impossible not to feel for these young characters, doomed from the outset by the ancient feuds of their elders.

The tale is undeniably compelling, but a more straightforward approach might have granted Ajami the feeling of tragedy. Copti and Shani are promising talents, but this time theyre a bit too clever for their own good.

Grade: B-

Directors: Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani

Trivia: None of the actors in Ajami had any prior acting experience.

Running time: 120 minutes

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