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Fate—or at least social status—lies heavy on the lives of Ajami’s various desperate characters. Most of them eventually resemble, in different ways, collateral damage in each other’s lives. This Israeli film, nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, is the product of a symbolically hopeful collaboration between Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani—a Christian Arab and a Jew, respectively—even though the film itself provides no discernible message of hope for a peaceful and just resolution to Israel’s protracted conflict with the Palestinians. Instead, it depicts individual plights that eddy outward, becoming waves that fatefully propel people into others’ lives.

At the center of this network of human cause and effect is Omar (Shahir Kabaha), a 19-year-old in the title’s restrictive, depressed Arab quarter of Jaffa whose family becomes the innocent target of a vendetta by Bedouin gangsters. Omar seeks the assistance of a Christian businessman-fixer (Youssef Sahwani), and then falls dangerously in love with the man’s daughter.

Arriving to work at her father’s restaurant is Malek (Ibrahim Frege), a 16-year-old illegal immigrant from the Occupied West Bank who needs an improbable amount of money to pay for his mother’s cancer treatment. Both Malek and Omar will become involved with Binj (played by Copti), whose brother is being sought by the Jaffa police, including Dando, the excitable detective who is increasingly anxious about the disappearance of his younger brother. This intertwining of lives eventually sets off explosively tragic consequences.

Copti and Shani obviously meant to suggest something vitally important about the ugly underside of Israeli society, and they’ve captured a ravaged, dangerous milieu that tourists and visiting dignitaries don’t visit. The filmmakers’ taut editing and Boaz Yehonatan Yaacov’s vivid cinematography create a sense of this fraught urban setting. But their neo-realist approach—including the skilled use of a largely non-pro cast—is somewhat at odds with their often arbitrary narrative. The characters may seem as much the writer-directors’ pawns as the victims of circumstances and passions. Ajami frequently compels even as it sometimes frustrates.

george sax

Watch the trailer for Ajami

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