Characters become less appealing as Ajami’s fractured structure comes together.

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Mar. 2, 2010

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Neighborhood watch: In Ajami, a suburb of Jaffa, Omar gets caught between warring families while Dando searches for his missing brother, Malek works in a kitchen and Binj attempts a new life with his girlfriend.

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 dad’s jokes, but this really is the story behind Ajami, a nerve-jangling crime drama set in the Tel Aviv suburb, Jaffa. One of this year’s 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 everything—even 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 man—unless he’s 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 café with Sydney Greenstreet’s oily élan.

Abu Elias works awfully hard at coming off kindly and paternal, but obviously he’s the kind of guy you don’t 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, she’s a Christian and he’s 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 café’s storage container, working illegally in the kitchen to try and muster up enough money for his sickly mother’s bone-marrow transplant. (For all its high-minded attentions and gritty realism, Ajami obviously isn’t 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 Dando’s 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 it’s 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. It’s 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.

I’m growing weary of fractured timeline narratives in general. Too often they’re used as card-trick diversions to gloss over ludicrous plot contrivances (a la Guillermo Arriaga’s 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 it’s 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 they’re 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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