The End of Revenge
Ajami, Israel’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee, rewards close attention. The elegantly structured film begins near the beginning, but its following chapters skip through time, showing the repercussions of a decision before the events that led up to it, and carefully placing the players on the stage of its tragedy. Writer-directors Scandar Copti (who also acts in the film) and Yaron Shani — a Palestinian and an Israeli, respectively — set their complex tale of overlapping lives in the Ajami neighborhood of Jaffa, which they describe in the film’s press notes as “a melting pot of cultures, nationalities and opposite human perspectives.”
Ajami begins with violence: A 15-year-old kid is shot in front of his apartment. A neighbor, Nasri (Fouad Habash), explains that it’s retaliation, but the shooters were confused; they meant to kill Nasri’s older brother, Omar (Shahir Kabaha). To stop further violence, the family turns to a powerful local businessman, Abu Elias (Youssef Sahwani), who brokers a peace that will cost Omar and Nasri’s family far more money than they have. From here, the story spreads outward, looping in a boy working illegally in Abu Elias’ restaurant; a Palestinian man caught between his friends and his Jewish girlfriend (women’s roles here are limited to love interests and weeping mothers); and a cop searching for his missing brother.
Copti and Shani do little hand-holding for the audience, throwing us right into the action and expecting us to keep up with who’s Arabic, who’s Jewish, and who is friends with or related to whom. These things are of utmost importance to the characters, key pieces of their identities that tie directly into the choices they make, no matter how wise, impassioned, misguided or tragic those choices may be. Copti and Shani steer clear of moral judgements, and their documentary-style film — shot with nonprofessional actors reacting to situations, not reading from a script — is deeply convincing in its depiction of the way its characters’ lives are colored by uncertainty, love, fear, family and the ever-present tension of overlapping worlds that don’t always understand each other. Ajami (120 minutes, not rated) opens Friday, May 14, at the Bijou. — Molly Templeton