Dir. Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani
(2010, Not Rated, 126 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

Ajami is a crime film set in a real Israeli community where Christians, Muslims, and Jews cohabit. It’s a hotbed of multicultural tension as depicted by writer-directors Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, a Palestinian and a Jew respectively, whose creative harmony belies the volatility of their subject. They tell their story from multiple points of view, with a narrative structure that doubles back on itself like Amores Perros. It’s reminiscent also of the 2008 German film The Edge of Heaven in its observation of the complications that arise from clashing cultures.

I spent the first half of the film in a juggling act. Characters alternate fluidly between Hebrew and Arabic — with helpful indicators in the subtitles when switching from one language to another. They pop into the screenplay, drop out, and come back from different angles. Sometimes they die and then reappear alive again, which alerts us that the film has jumped backwards in its time line. The narrative shuffling is some fancy footwork, perhaps too clever for its own good in a story that already asks us to keep track of various criminal enterprises, ethnic conflicts, and religious differences, but the payoffs are so effective — surprising, devastating, sad — that they earn the storytelling conceit. I suspect the film will benefit greatly from a second viewing: the first to get the lay of the land, the second to appreciate the details and nuance.

The story involves the convergence of four main characters. Omar (Shahir Kabaha) is a Muslim teen caught in the crossfire after his uncle mistakenly shoots an extortionist from a powerful family; he’ll need to buy his family’s safety, but can’t afford the cost. Malek (Ibrahim Frege) works with Omar in a restaurant kitchen and also needs money, to pay for a bone marrow transplant for his ailing mother. Binj (co-director Copti) has a younger brother involved in murder and drugs. The most prominent Jewish character is Dando (Eran Naim), a police officer whose brother went missing several years ago after leaving the army.

The directors’ approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not overtly political, but observational and situational. There is no sweeping commentary about nations or homelands or occupations; the conflict is evoked subtly in scenes like Binj’s visit to a Tel Aviv nightclub, where uncomfortable stares are cast in his direction when he begins speaking Arabic on the phone. In a later scene, the camera focuses on Binj’s girlfriend when his family is in crisis; she speaks no Arabic and listens, without comprehending, as the family expresses their disdain for her.

The strain of these intermingled and often adversarial cultures erupts in flashes of violence that are presented matter-of-factly, as sudden, shattering interruptions of everyday lives. The linking of the various storylines work because Copti and Shani are not self-consciously preoccupied with coincidences or predestination, as this kind of hyperlink narrative often is. The events are rooted in character, arising organically from the powder-keg animosities on all sides, which need only the slightest spark to combust. Consider an argument between a Jewish man and a group of Arab neighbors about noise and how it sets into motion events that engulf other characters in a kind of tragic domino effect.

The film is narrated by Omar’s younger brother, Nasri (Fouad Habash), who senses that something very bad is going to happen. He doesn’t know the half of it.