Ajami is a very tense, impressive, emotional and exciting work. The cinematography of this sprawling film is often beautiful, which somehow blends right into the fly-on-the-wall documentary ambiance. This shift between fine direction and naturalistic feel makes the unfolding story all the more compelling. I was confused a few times, but I caught up without straining myself – if you just keep watching, so will you.
What’s this picture about? A boy in Palestine learns that he needs to get $50k to pay for his mother’s life-saving operation. He makes a deal with an influential Jewish businessman who already employs him, an ambitious chef who’s also a drug user/dealer, and as many other friends and acquaintances as possible. But his life’s problems aren’t constrained to just him, and Ajami shows us how it bleeds in to larger issues among his peers, his community, and Middle-East society in general.
If I had to review the movie in one sentence, I’d claim that it’s a complex picture that reveals and justifies itself so well that you’ll feel happy you chose to watch it.
If there’s an easy flaw to find, at least it’s something that pays off well: the viewer doesn’t know that this film is broken into four acts. I wasn’t prepared for it, and when it seemed like the narrative was over with plenty of time to go, I was confused. I’m supposed to be smart, so I was shocked. Although I was resistant to the sudden set of multiple narratives after watching so much of one initial film, I greatly enjoyed what followed. They perfectly inform and explain the opening segment, while providing their own energy and focus.
This sort of unconventional story-telling should be a failure, but it works out perfectly. I was most of the way into the Second Act when I lost my qualms about what I was watching. I was even more resistant when a Third Act came earlier than expected – yet I was gradually rewarded for my faith and interest. During the Fourth and final Act, I simply accepted and thought about what was on my screen.
All the actors are excellent. They sell their parts in a letter-perfect way, defining every role neatly while allowing room for quirks and unexpected development. These are complicated people under pressure. The footage is partially staged and partially freestyle, and the result is something that grips you and pulls you in to a narrative that gets more fascinating as time goes on. The camerawork and acting sell the emotional conflict smartly.
The filmmakers managed to create a Reservoir Dogs/Lone Star-type of atmosphere. So many different parts of this start to make much more sense once you’ve seen the chapters that follow. Even better, the familiarity that the film-makers had with the subject led to a balanced picture that shows tragedy as well as triumph, prejudice as well as compassion. There’s a single story, in the end, which is told intelligently.
The circumstances are strange for someone who doesn’t know much about Israel or Palestine, but the characters are so well-defined that everything is realistic. The result is that you’re always involved in the narrative. This is a practically an accomplishment in American major studio film, but this foreign Indie film pulls it off neatly.
Ajami is now available on the Xbox Marketplace, and will soon be available more broadly. I will update this post to include the new sources. if for no other reason than that this is a well-constructed foreign film that deserves to be seen. I nearly lost faith in this picture a few times, and my patience was rewarded nicely. Keep an eye out for his future work – I will.
, possibly higher.