Directed by Scander Copti, Yaron Shani. Starring Yaron Copti, Shahir Kabaha, Ibrahim Frege, Fouad Habash, Youssef Sahwani, Ranin Karim, Eran Naim. (2009, NR, 120 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., April 23, 2010
Israel's entry for the 2009 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar lost out to Argentina's The Secret in Their Eyes, but that in no way means that you should skip over this electrifying and decidedly downbeat slice of life and death in Ajami – the Jaffa, Israel, neighborhood of the title. First-time directors Copti (a Palestinian living in Israel) and Shani (an Israeli Jew) add the weight of their own personally divergent backgrounds to a sprawling tale that reflects on the virulent pathology of violence that has been forever endemic to the Holy Land. Working with a battalion of mostly nonprofessional actors and a bare-bones script (allowing for improvisation), these two unlikely directorial partners manage to lay to ruin both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian argument while simultaneously crafting a deeply affecting film that sides only with the utter absurdity and fruitlessness of the conflict. War is hell, to be sure, but the Catch-22-esque idiocies of planned battle are trumped, again and again, by a centuries-old armed conflict that has both blinded the two sides to a peaceful solution and inured them to the horrific senselessness of their ongoing but ultimately ineffective state of perpetual martyrdom. Ajami, shot in a deeply cinema-verité style by cinematographer Boaz Yehonatan Yaacov, unfolds in flashback and flash-foward, snaking its way through an ensemble cast of everyday Jaffa residents, including young narrator Nasri (Habash), who witnesses a neighbor gunned down by killers who believe the young man to be Nasri's brother. In turn, and in a grim, Middle Eastern version of Paul Haggis' Crash, petty misunderstandings, then bullets, and then blood pour out of this initial accidental murder like an arterial spray from the neck of a sacrificial lamb. While all the characters – Omar (Kabaha), an Israeli hellbent on avenging the murder of a family member by a Palestinian crime family; Dando (Naim), a Jewish cop; Binj (director Copti), a smart Palestinian wooing his Israeli flame – are working at unknown odds against one another, the overall tone of the film is ripped straight from hearts and headlines. It's always been difficult for those in the West to comprehend the cycle of violence that's so deeply ingrained in the Jews’ and Palestinians’ warring, seemingly counterproductive factions, and while Ajami doesn't really make it any easier for us to understand – violence is a virus, Ajami seems to say, and it infects everything and everyone that comes into contact with it – it does place the audience squarely amid the myriad horrors of a land and a conflict predicated, it appears, on little more than an age-old blood feud and Joseph Heller's concept of catch-22.