Directed by Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani
A likeable cast of unfussy nonprofessional actors makes an overstuffed story breathe a little in this perspective-shifting debut by an Arab-Israeli directing duo. Ajami is not so shameless as to warrant diagnosis with the same multinarrative viral strain observed in Haggis, Gonzalez Inarritu, et al., but Copti and Shani's scrupulous, chapter-charted story does supermarket-sweep up the following: Romeo and Juliet romance, drug dealing to pay for a sick mother's operation, a tribal vendetta (also requiring payments), a missing son, drug overdose (not unlike Mrs. Mia Wallace's), illegal migrant labor, a neighborly dispute over illegal sheep, and a frame device (a little brother who draws) that telegraphs some kind of whiplash reveal.
Also, the setting is Jaffa, Israel, within and around an Arab-Jewish neighborhood in flux. Most of the travails and chain reactions radiate from the young target of the vendetta (Shahir Kabaha) and a puppyish teenaged co-worker (Ibrahim Frege, adorable), whose ages introduce generational conflict as well; a Jewish cop, henpecked and doting on his kids, helps balance the ethnic equation.
Unsurprisingly, what's most effective are the small acts of decency, contention, and connection (especially some good flirting), scaled to day-to-day situations and doled out unpredictably. It's a film to harvest for moments; Ajami wobbles, and character logic falters, whenever the actors are called upon to ratchet up the stakes. The filmmakers return inexorably to the image of a streetside grapple escalating into a tragic altercation, with the camera getting feisty, but the microcosm vibe at least stops short of an operatic world-embrace.
Opens February 3 at Film Forum