Crossing paths and cultures
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Feb. 19, 2010
An ambitious combination of street-smart spontaneity and florid theatricality propel "Ajami," a movie by Israeli filmmakers Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani about life in the mostly Arab city of Jaffa, just south of Tel Aviv. The film, which features non-professional actors from that area (one of Israel's most fractious communities) interweaves a multitude of stories and characters, many of whom intersect with deadly results. "Ajami" is a curious artifact of Israeli-Palestinian politics, being undeniably informed by that wider conflict but taking its dramatic cues largely from the sectarian, personal clashes that roil within it.
The film opens on a street in the Ajami neighborhood of Jaffa, where a teenager is fixing a car and is suddenly shot dead by members of a Bedouin gang. The actual target, an Israeli Arab named Omar (Shahir Kabaha), seeks to protect himself and his family through the offices of a prosperous Arab Christian restaurant owner named Abu Elias (Youssef Sahwani).
Even more characters eventually cross paths with Omar and each other in a series of highly pitched encounters, including the restaurateur's beautiful daughter, a Jewish police officer and an urbane Palestinian, played by co-director Copti, who longs to live with his Jewish girlfriend in Tel Aviv.
"Ajami," nominated for a foreign-language film Oscar, was written and made over several years, a laborious process that sometimes shows in an excess of plotty contrivance. But one gets the sense that it conveys complicated, often contradictory truths about its time and place. "Ajami" ultimately presents viewers with an irony as unresolved as the very conflicts it dramatizes: While its themes of revenge, mutual resentment and grim fatalism offer little hope for a ready solutions, the movie itself testifies to the power of creative collaboration in finding common ground.
Contains violence, profanity, drug use and adult thematic material. In Arabic and Hebrew with subtitles.