An Oscar nominee as best foreign-language film, Israel's Ajami is a reminder that things can always -- always -- be worse.
Set in the predominantly Arab neighborhood of Tel Aviv known as Ajami, the film looks at the lives of an intersecting group of Israeli Arabs. The political tensions in this always tense area are a given -- but, in this case, so are the factors of crime and poverty.
In other words, a world already proscribed by life as a minority in a country wrought with conflict gets harder still when you factor in these other negative variables.
Directed by Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, Ajami begins with a street shooting, a mistaken identity drive-by in which the neighbor of the target is accidentally shot in his stead. As the narrative widens, we learn that the actual target, a young man named Omar (Shahir Kabaha), is relatively innocent himself, targeted in a feud between his uncle and a group of Bedouins, whose idea of payback is to kill everyone in the uncle's family.
Omar's only solution is to approach the neighborhood fixer, Abu-Lias (Youssef Sahwani), who negotiates a truce -- but at a price that essentially indentures Omar and his family for life. Desperate for money to repay his debt, Omar casts a wide net and, inevitably, makes bad choices that take him to some dark places.
Directors Copti and Shani interweave Omar's story -- which also includes a romance with Abu-Lias' daughter -- with those of a couple of other characters. Among them: another young Arab in the country illegally in order to earn money to help his ailing mother, and a bullying Israeli cop whose heavy-handed methods are a marked contrast to his gentle touch as the father of small children. But his temper is shortened by the pain of searching for a missing brother, a soldier who has disappeared on his way home for a furlough.
These various segments are mixed and matched, told out of order, with certain scenes reexamined to provide a key piece of information that was previously hidden. That kind of reveal adds power to a previously innocuous moment.
Too many films about the Israel-Palestinian conflict reduce it to that simple friction: a struggle that seems endless because each side has too many zealots whose only position is the eradication of the other. There's little nuance to the tragedy involved in that dynamic.
But Copti and Shani deepen the tragedy by giving it more layers. It's not just about Arab and Israeli -- it's about Muslim and Christian. The rich dominate the poor. The young fight for the place currently being held by the old. There seem to be too many places for progress to trip, stumble and fall -- whether it 's the understanding between two different cultures or between neighbors of the same persuasion.
Yet Ajami isn't a downbeat film -- though it is a relentless one. It is alive with energy, if only the energy devoted to survival. Surviving is a creative act; surviving in the face of unlikely odds requires a certain crazy desperation and a kind of hope. It's fueled by a sense of possibility -- that there is no obstacle too formidable to overcome.
The favorite in this year's Oscar race for foreign-language is Michael Haneke's cold and off-putting The White Ribbon, for reasons I can't fathom. But Ajami has the kind of nuance and insight into another culture that this award is intended for.