Israeli Oscar nominee "Ajami" admirable, but dark

Wed Feb 3, 2010 10:33pm EST
 
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By Eric Monder

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - The fact that first-time co-directors Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani used a mostly nonprofessional cast and shot "Ajami" on location, sometimes without a script, gives their film a raw, realistic power.

The main drawback to this noble effort, just nominated for the foreign-language Oscar, is that the two-hour film is unrelievedly grim and tense.

Cinematic treatments of Middle East tensions usually find an audience. Word-of-mouth and the many awards the film has won will assure "Ajami" a certain success at specialized venues, though the film's evenhandedness might annoy the politically astute.

Copti (a Palestinian from Israel) and Shani (an Israeli Jew) combine forces by telling their original story, based in part on their experiences and observations, and setting it in the multi-ethnic section of Jaffa called Ajami. Here, several disparate characters cross paths -- sometimes in deadly and tragic ways.

It starts with Omar (Shahir Kabaha), a young Israeli determined to avenge the murders of his family members. Then there is Malek (Ibrahim Frege), a Palestinian refugee working illegally in order to afford major surgery; Dando (Eran Naim), a Jewish police officer hellbent on finding his missing brother; and Binj (director Copti), a wealthy Palestinian trying to find peace as he romances a young Jewish woman.

In "Pulp Fiction" fashion, the stories intertwine and are told in flashbacks and flash-forwards, adding to the sense of chaos and crisis inherent in the lives of those in the war-torn region.

Copti and Shani's skill at juggling the many balls of the narrative is more than admirable. The multiple points of view offer audiences a chance to experience the variety of situations from a range of character perspectives.

Thanks to cinematographer Boaz Yehonatan Yaacov, nearly every moment feels authentic (only a few scenes of violence betray a "staged" quality). At its best, "Ajami" exhibits the suspenseful immediacy of documentarylike fictions like Cristi Puiu's Bucharest-set crime drama "Stuff and Dough." Although no one actor stands out, the ensemble seems completely natural.

But there are several flaws to "Ajami" that are hard to overlook. The film is simply too long and could have been trimmed without losing valuable information. The shaky, cinema-verite camera style might be appropriate but becomes overused (after 20 years of this mainstream film and television technique, it might be time for directors to give it a rest).

Finally, the emphasis on the personal over the political is obviously intentional, but "Ajami" passes up the chance to be more critical or even darkly humorous in the manner of the films of Amos Gitai or Elia Suleiman; the film better resembles thematically, if not artistically, Susan Sontag's recently rereleased 1974 documentary "Promised Lands," which goes to show that things haven't changed much in the Middle East over the past several decades.

 
<p>Producer Mosh Danon (L) stands with actors from the film "Ajami "(from 2ndL-R) Hilal Kabob, Shahir Kabaha and Eran Naim during a news conference in Jaffa, just outside central Tel Aviv February 2, 2010. The Israeli film was nominated for best foreign language film for the 82nd Academy Awards Tuesday. The Oscars will be presented in Hollywood March 7, 2010. REUTERS/Gil Cohen Magen</p>