Nominated for an Oscar, written and directed by an Israeli Arab and an Israeli Jew, Ajami is one of those tangled, back-and-forth crime flicks that shows you a murder, then loops around to when the victim was happy and alive. But happiness doesn't last long in Ajami. It's a little bit Tarantino, a little bit Paul Haggis (Crash), with Hebrew and Arabic noisily spoken by a mostly nonprofessional cast. With many characters and subplots, the unifying force is money (or the lack thereof), as an Arab family in Jaffa falls into a blood-money debt that can only be paid, of course, in blood or money. Stealing or selling drugs makes sense to 20-ish Omar, though that might complicate his relationship with an Arab-Christian girlfriend whose restaurateur father runs their neighborhood. (He's the Don Corleone of falafel huts.) Meanwhile, Omar's young teen brother—also our narrator—trails the action through dark alleyways and into hidden party pads where behavior is decidedly haram. Israelis are mainly on the periphery—an irate guy complaining about noisy sheep; a cop angry about his missing brother, a soldier, in the West Bank. When they enter the poor, ethnically mixed neighborhood of Ajami, violence inevitably erupts. But it's not just Israeli-versus-Arab; factions within factions make peace all the more difficult to broker in Ajami, a grim but significant achievement by filmmakers Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani.
Co-director and writer Copti plays an affluent Palestinian party boy.
Opens at Seven Gables, Fri., April 23. Not rated. 120 minutes.