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.
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.)
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.