The Israeli-Palestinian ensemble drama Ajami is thoroughly polarized and amazingly un-polarizing: No matter which side you’re on, the brutality will make you sick. Co-directed by an Israeli Jew, Yaron Shani, and a Palestinian Arab, Scandor Copti, the film is a tapestry of tragedies that skips between Tel Aviv and the Palestinian territories. Rash acts of violence lead to rash retaliations, which lead to even more pointless blowbacks. It’s not a one-to-one, eye-for-an-eye ratio: The homicidal rage is rather amorphous. Shani and Copti invert the narrative so that you see the carnage first and only later figure out the senseless reason someone died.
The opening scene depicts the senseless assassination by Bedouin motorcyclists of a Palestinian Arab teenager fixing a car: senseless because it turns out to be payback for the teen’s uncle’s shooting of a Bedouin gangster who (senselessly) shot up the uncle’s café; and even more senseless because the motorcyclists killed the wrong teenager (a neighbor). Jaffa’s Ajami neighborhood, not far from Tel Aviv, is like Chicago in the twenties — only worse, because the pressure on Palestinians comes from their own side as well as Israeli cops and soldiers. To pay off the Bedouin crime family and keep their desperately ill mother alive, the young Muslim Omar (Shahir Kabaha) and his gifted, artistic kid brother, Malek (Ibrahim Frege), need to earn a lot of cash quickly. So they steal car parts and scam gas money and slip into Israel proper to work as illegals and end up trying to sell a large quantity of drugs that has passed from hand to hand in a most confusing way. Long after the horrifying consequences of their meeting with an Israeli buyer, the filmmakers are still doubling back to preceding events and teasing out more of the characters’ motives.
A touch more linearity wouldn’t have hurt: Even accounting for its purposefully puzzling structure, Ajami is murkier than it needs to be. The film was partially improvised and shot with handheld cameras, and the actors often blur together — although that in itself is a source of fascination. We think, “Wait — who are we watching? Are these Arabs or Israelis? Do they really look that much alike?” They do. Shani and Copti downplay outright racism. It’s more a matter of poverty and class and tribalism and wounded pride and a climate of vengeance that drives people to violence. Ajami is all about landmines, metaphorical rather than literal. A barbed but initially casual exchange between a Jewish patriarch and his young Arab neighbors grows more and more ugly and explodes into brutality, which ripples through the neighborhood causing more brutality — and somehow leads to a good-natured character (played by director Copti) doing something bizarrely self-destructive, which leads back to Omar and Malek and their bag of drugs and their collision course with a grieving, unstable Israeli cop, Dando (played by ex-policeman Eran Naim).
Apart from Malek, whose haunting sketches evoke his struggle to see beyond the wretched surface of his life, the characters don’t have much stature, and the movie peaks too early. But Ajami transcends its often-mundane mise-en-scène. Palestinian and Israeli parents weep over dead children whose only guilt was by association — until it hits you that every interaction in the movie, from the testy to the murderous, is b