Monday, February 01, 2010

Likely Oscar Nominee: Ajami

As is the case here in America, the Israeli film industry is often vociferously critical of its own country. In recent years, their guilt trips have been rewarded with two Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Language Film. As the product “Palestinian” and Jewish Israeli co-directors, Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani’s Ajami must be considered a virtual lock for another nomination. One of nine films on the Academy’s Foreign Language shortlist, Ajami (trailer here) kicks off its regular theatrical run this Wednesday at Film Forum, following its New York premiere at this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival.

Much like hundreds of films that will screen at festivals this year, Ajami follows a large cast of supposedly diverse and only tangentially related characters as their paths repeatedly crisscross. However, it is relatively easy to keep track of Ajami’s players, because their characterization is entirely a product of demography. The Jewish Israelis are almost entirely boorish, dangerous figures. As for the Arab characters, they are only slightly more nuanced. Those who are Muslim are uniformly portrayed as victims, while the Christians are largely depicted as users prone to betrayal. Such is the art-house cinema’s simplistic microcosm of the State of Israel, perfectly represented in Adjami.

Giving Adjami proper due credit, it starts in an interesting place, dramatizing the clan violence wrecking havoc on Palestinian neighborhoods, like the Ajami section of Jaffa for which the film is titled. When a teenaged neighbor is gunned down in broad daylight, Nasri’s family quickly deduces the bullet was meant for him. After their uncle killed a Bedouin gangster attempting to hold up his cafĂ©, the dead man’s clan has declared war on the innocent family. Rather than ask for police protection, they seek the dubious justice of an Arab mediator, who not surprisingly rules the family must pay a considerable sum in restitution, out of which, of course, he is entitled to a cut for wise services rendered.

As his family struggles to survive, Nasri’s older brother Omar pursues a Romeo & Juliet romance with Hadir, the daughter of Abu-Elias, the well-connected Arab Christian who brokered the cease-fire with the Bedouin clan. However, for some reason Abu-Elias is less than thrilled by the prospect of his daughter marrying the impoverished Omar, who will most likely find himself back in the Bedouin crosshairs when the family misses the next installment of their reparations. Rather than wait for the gangsters to do the job for him, the community organizer sets up Omar to take a fall that will get him out of Hadir’s life for good.

From this point, Ajami rapidly goes south as Copti and Shani start playing tiresome games with the film’s narrative thread. They also introduce clichĂ©d characters including a thuggish Israeli cop and a desperate Muslim illegal trying to earn money for his mother’s operation.

Largely wasted in Ajami’s collapse are two fine performances from Shahir Kabaha and Ranin Karim as the star-crossed lovers. Separately the both project genuine likability and together they have real on-screen chemistry. The film shows signs of life during the scenes they share.

Unfortunately, as Ajami’s hiccups towards its conclusion, it loses it way in a sea of all too familiar art film tropes. Despite a promising beginning, Ajami deteriorates into a predictably politicized social drama, undistinguishable from a host of similar films. Yet since it reinforces rather than challenges Hollywood’s prejudices, it should be considered the clear front-runner for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. It opens Wednesday (2/3) at Film Forum.