‘Ajami’: Real life in the Middle East

Set in a universe more fascinating than any 3-D wonderland, the Israeli drama “Ajami” depicts everyday life in the powder-keg streets of Tel Aviv’s Jaffa section.

A crime family targets a teenager for death because of an offense committed by his uncle, a petty argument escalates into a stabbing, and to marry outside one’s faith constitutes traitorhood in this community inhabited by Arabs, Jews, Muslims, Christians and a few star-crossed lovers and friends.

Written and directed by Scandar Copti, an Israeli Arab, and Yaron Shani, an Israeli Jew, the film is a naturalistic sizzler, succeeding as both a crime drama and a culture-collision tapestry.

Whatever workings of human nature cause people to divide hatefully along lines of religion, ethnicity and clanship, Jaffa’s Ajami neighborhood epitomizes such mentality in this nonjudgmental, humanist story featuring a handheld look and a neorealist tone along with dashes of Ken Loach, Quentin Tarantino and Greek tragedy.

The action begins with a revenge shooting, by bedouin gunmen, that kills the wrong person. Ripple effects follow.

Omar (Shahir Kabaha), the sweet-tempered 19-year-old Arab Israeli who, due to the uncle incident, was the bedouins’ intended victim, must pay a steep sum to keep the assassins from returning.

Malek (Ibrahim Frege), a 16-year-old Palestinian refugee employed by powerful restaurateur Abu Elias (Youssef Sahwani), needs money for his mother’s life-saving surgery.

The two teens decide to sell drugs, a scenario that involves Binj (played by Copti), a Palestinian with a Jewish girlfriend.

The Muslim Omar, meanwhile, loves the Christian Hadir (Ranin Karim), Abu Elias’ daughter. Such relationships, says the father, with an “I’ll break your bones” warning, are forbidden.

A Jewish cop (Eran Naim) searching for his missing brother and Omar’s budding-cartoonist younger brother (Fouad Habash) also figure in.

The newcomer filmmakers falter with their “Pulp Fiction”-style circular story structure. It compromises clarity and makes us feel yanked around.

But this is still a skillfully steered thriller, an impressively textured picture of a complicated hot spot, and, like “City of God” or “Gomorrah,” a testament to how invigorating contemporary realist cinema can be.

The film contains an important mix of cultural perspectives, and plot devices don’t eclipse crucial human ingredients.

A judge-conducted bedouin session held to determine how much Omar must pay to stay alive is terrific verite drama. Kitchen-worker and birthday-party camaraderie, among other lighter fare, provides down-to-earth and even comic appeal.

The actors are nonprofessionals selected for their resemblance to their characters. They are thoroughly believable.

MOVIE REVIEW

Ajami

Three stars

Starring Shahir Kabaha, Ibrahim Frege, Eran Naim, Ranin Karim
Written and directed by Scandar Copti, Yaron Shani
Not rated
Running time 2 hours

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