Friday, February 12, 2010

Movie with Abe: Ajami

Directed by Scandar Copti & Yaron Shani
Released February 3, 2010

This year marks the third consecutive Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film for the country of Israel, and this year’s film is just as poignant and relevant as the previous two. What separates “Ajami” from “Waltz with Bashir” and “Beaufort” is that it doesn’t focus primarily on Jewish Israelis, but instead takes a broader look at the conflicts that plague a mixed neighborhood in Tel Aviv called Ajami. What the film makes devastatingly clear is that the current conflict is hardly black and white, and it’s not merely based on Arab and Jewish ethnicity. The film presents a searing portrait of the violence and unrest in Ajami and doesn’t stop short of showing anything too disturbing or provocative.

“Ajami” is made extremely powerful by the use of non-professional actors to portray its characters, which helps to make the film feel even more real. With this kind of story, a sense of reality is extraordinarily important, and that’s perhaps its strongest asset. The ensemble is not focused on honing professional and polished performances but instead on getting to the roots of human tragedy, bigotry, and difficulties in coexistence, and all the actors do a marvelous job. Two members of the cast, Shahir Kabaha, who plays the hard-headed and brave Muslim Omar, and Ranin Karim, who plays his forbidden Christian love Hadir, turn in exceptionally terrific performances.

“Ajami” definitely represents the complexity of the situation, and underlines the fact that it isn’t even merely two-sided, Muslims against the Jews. But what’s troubling is that, despite coming from a directing team made up of one Jew and one Arab, is that it certainly is not pro-Israeli as far as the Jews as concerned. It doesn’t make the distinction easy, pitting each ethnic tribe against another, but the general consensus seems to be that no one likes the Jews (which may well be true), and they’re not portrayed terribly sympathetically either. That certainly doesn’t make it a bad film by any means, but it’s somewhat disconcerting. The film was fairly well-received in Israel, winning its Best Picture prize, and it still is a worthwhile and compelling movie.

Where the film does falter is in its brisk editing that mimics the out-of-order presentation of other films like “Pulp Fiction,” where characters are shot to death in one scene and reappear completely fine in the next. While this structure helps to reveal unknown information in a dynamic, intriguing, and surprising way, the film gets lost in its own web of plotlines and separate arcs, making its dramatic resolution all the more difficult to pinpoint. When it’s all over, the pieces still need to be reassembled, making the film’s impact lasting but more than a bit dizzying and unsatisfying.


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