Ajami, Israel's official entry for the Oscars this past year, is an ambitious and often intriguing melding of Neorealism and the crime genre that impresses only slightly more than it frustrates. Co-directed, edited, and written by Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, the film brings together an ensemble of first-time actors to create a portrait of life in the culturally diverse Ajami neighborhood in the city of Jaffa.
Taking a cue from the jumbled population it's meant to reflect, Ajami is constructed as a series of interlocking chapters, each focusing on a different aspect of the same story, shedding lights on different corners of the shared community. The main focus is on the area Muslims, who are subject to both abuse by the Israeli police and the whims of their local bosses. When one godfather's button man gets shot by a restaurant owner with a heavy balance due, the shooter's family becomes responsible for the blood debt now owed. The head of their borough is a Christian man named Abu-Elias (Youssef Sahwani), and he helps 19-year-old Omar (Shahir Kabaha), the family's eldest able male, settle on a dollar amount that will take the price off his family's head, but it's way more than Omar could ever hope to earn honestly. Meanwhile, Malek (Ibrahim Frege) is an illegal immigrant working in Elias' restaurant in hopes he will pay his mother's medical bills. Malek hinks he may have witnessed the drug-related murder of one of their friends (Scandar Copti, earning his fourth credit on the picture), and he and Omar hatch a plan to sell the crystal meth that the dead man had in his possession.
Also involved in this is a veteran police officer named Dando (Eran Naim), whose brother has gone missing from the army and is believed to be dead. The Jewish cops are regularly at odds with the citizens of Ajami, and Dando believes his brother might have been killed by Muslin enemies. This adds to the tension of his already dicey patrols. The populace isn't afraid to defend the worst amongst themselves to keep their own out of prison. When an Arab boy stabs a Jewish man, tension in the city heats up.
Ajami isn't just about cops and robbers, however, it's also about family and about love. Omar has a little brother and a mother to look out for, and he's having a secret romance with Abu-Elias' daughter Hadir (Ranin Karim). Elias will never allow them to be together, inter-faith marriages are not acceptable. Similarly, the murdered would-be dealer is dating a Jewish woman in Tel Aviv and is disowned by some of his friends as a result. Economic, socio-political, and religious status are all part of the cultural identity, and the pressures on individuals come both from outside their group and from within.
Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani have created an interesting cinematic story with Ajami. The film is shot cleanly and cinematographer Boaz Yehonatan Yaacov achieves an aesthetic very near to documentary. In terms of genre, Ajami is somewhere in the same ballpark as City of God and Gomorrah, though it is missing the former's stylistic flourishes and the latter's density. Despite the obvious surface complexity, the story is actually fairly conventional. The untrained actors are all surprisingly good, and they bring a sense of reality and genuine emotion to their performances, but throughout Ajami, I felt that for as much as I was enjoying it, I had seen it all before. Ajami is heartfelt in intention, but perfunctory and hollow in execution.
Ironically, the final chapter in the story is both its most intriguing and its most disappointing. Copti and Shani decide to finally show us how all these various plotlines come together, and as the pieces fall into place, the suspense increases. Unfortunately, the gathering of the pieces also reveals that the disjointed narrative structure is a bit of a cheat. There is no real reason for shuffling the events around except to hide crucial bits of information from the viewer. That information amounts to a few last-minute twists that are wholly predictable and a little bit cheap. The change-ups are things we've seen in a million crime movies before, and no amount of storytelling sleight-of-hand is going to make us forget it. It has the opposite effect, actually; it left me thinking that the twisty outline was created to sizzle up what was otherwise rather flat.
The filmmakers clearly wanted to create something fresh by portraying an environment that we don't see in cinema very often (if ever), but somewhere along the way, Ajami became just the same old thing.
Ajami is brought to Blu-ray as 1080p presentation in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The image quality is quite good, with color and texture brought forward without sacrificing any of the realism of the cinematography. The real light and the real dirt can be seen on the screen, and the use of shadow and darkness for obscuring and effect makes the believability of the movie and the nuance of performance shine even as the script falters.
The 5.1 DTS soundtrack is impressive more for how it holds back than how it tries to dazzle with effects. The movie is almost entirely dialogue driven--and when it's not, it's driven by silence, the things unsaid. There is a nice ambient hum to the proceedings that counterbalances the hushed conversations in such a way that it draws you in by asking you to be a careful listener.
The optional English subtitles are well done, paced evenly and cleanly written, with cues to indicate shifts between Hebrew and Arab in the dialogue. (You may think for a second you're watching a Closed Captioning track, but don't worry, you're not.)
There is nearly an hour of extras on the Blu-ray for Ajami. The lead feature is a program entitled "Ajami: The Story of the Actors." At just under half an hour, it introduces us to the amateur cast and through rehearsal footage and interviews shows us how they went from ground zero to creating a fully fleshed film. This may also lead you to appreciating the 23-minutes of deleted scenes even more, as these are mostly character moments that showcase the performers more than essential story info that was unnecessarily lost.
Rounding out the disc is a collection of stills and a theatrical trailer for the film. The disc is in a regular plastic case but also has a side-loading slipcover.
While I certainly applaud the effort that went into Ajami, I was less than thrilled by the movie itself. Filmmaking duo Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani have assembled a team of inexperienced actors to recreate the complicated structure of an Israeli neighborhood. To match the fractured social construct and the diversity of the neighborhood's inhabitants, they chop up the narrative into criss-crossing, non-chronological chapters. Or so I initially thought. By the end of the movie, I was more convinced that the complexity of the story structure was there to distract us from the familiarity of the script and an easy way to throw a few "surprises" into the final reel. I want to give Ajami a gold star for effort, but it's really just a nice try and not even close to full-blown success. Rent It.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.