The first feature from writer/directors Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, "Ajami" is one of this year's five nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. This is the third year in a row that the Israeli entry has been nominated following decades of rather sparse representation.
It's not surprising that aesthetically ambitious Israeli films tend to revolve around ethnic conflicts, particularly with Palestinians. "Ajami" is no exception, but it takes a refreshingly sideways approach, compared with its two immediate predecessors among the Oscar nominees, "Beaufort" and "Waltz With Bashir," both of which were war films.
"Ajami" is basically a crime film, with cops, drug dealers, and petty thieves. The title refers to a low-rent area of Jaffa, populated by a mix of Israelis – Jews, Arab Christians, and Arab Muslims – as well as desperate Palestinians, who have penetrated the border illegally in search of decent jobs. It is, in short, an urban melting pot – a modern Middle Eastern equivalent to the New York neighborhoods that formed the backdrop for innumerable Hollywood gangster films in the 1930s and '40s. The film opens with a botched drive-by shooting: A Bedouin gang seeking revenge for an earlier incident intends to kill 19-year-old Omar (Shahir Kabaha), but instead murders a thoroughly innocent neighbor.
Not that Omar seems any less innocent. He has done nothing himself; it was his uncle who shot one of the Bedouins, triggering the vendetta. Even his uncle appears to have been acting in reasonable self-defense, although we only see the incident in a flashback narrated by Omar's little brother, Nasri (Fouad Habash), whose interpretation may be unreliable.
Afraid that his entire family will be targeted, Omar appeals to Abu Elias (Youssef Sahwani), a relatively well-to-do Christian Arab, who runs the restaurant where Omar is a kitchen worker. Abu Elias is able to "buy" a three-day truce, during which a monetary settlement – vastly in favor of the Bedouins – is determined by a mediating Muslim cleric. There is no legal way for Omar to raise the kind of money demanded, so he starts looking for illegal ways.
For the first part of the film – which is divided into five chapters – Omar seems to be our protagonist, but the focus shifts to other characters, whose stories intersect with his. Malek (Ibrahim Frege) is a Palestinian teen illegally working at the restaurant and hoping to find a way to pay for a lifesaving operation for his mother; and Dando (Eran Naim) is an Israeli cop, obsessed with locating his brother, a soldier who has vanished.
The narrative structure has elements of "Crash" and "Babel": Each chapter involves a time "reset," so that, as in "Pulp Fiction," a dead character seems at one point to have come back to life. Several crucial scenes are repeated from different points of view, each time changing our understanding of events.
While ethnic and religious identity informs everything about the events, we see occasional prejudice rather than hatred. The Arabs often reflexively refer to the police simply as "the Jews" and mockingly imitate their way of speaking. Even though the milieu is largely determined by these identities, it's their social and economic byproducts that motivate what happens.
Among other things, "Ajami" reminds us that "Israeli" and "Jewish" are not perfectly congruent circles in a Venn diagram; and that neither these – nor "Arab," "Muslim," "Palestinian," and "Christian" – describe perfectly homogeneous groups. (The two directors are both Israeli citizens – one Palestinian, the other ethnically Jewish.) We meet Orthodox Jews and devout Muslims, but most of the characters are only casually religious. Everyone seems much too busy dealing with family matters, work, and simple survival to indulge in extremes.
•Peter Rainer, the Monitor's film critic, is on vacation this week.