"Ajami" by Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani starts seeming like some sort of (as critics would say) "promising," but soon becomes about so many different characters (as someone said about "A Prophet") that it doesn't help that it's in two different languages and that (as my friend said) "the switch between them is important." I have this problem sometimes where in a foreign film if too much is presented onscreen through dialogue and I'm in a theater at night and I have to read all of these subtitles to keep with the plot, I can't. Such a thing happened I believe with "Summer Hours," which I didn't really like anyways, but I think I missed "key plot information," (as they call it), and perhaps that ruined the film for me.
Someone on IMDB compared the film to "City of God" and "Gomorrah." Also has been brought up the idea of it being an "Arab-Israeli 'Crash'" (Ty Burr). It does center around a specific event, which in this case would be an exchange of crystal meth and money. Obviously, as with all such events, it must go wrong. And it does. The thing is, we don't see this event until over an hour in, and then we think there's going to be more to it. But the film's five-chapter structure introduces it at the end of chapter 2 and clutters around with a semi-related character before flashing back and showing the event again from "another perspective." I wish the third chapter had returned to the beginning, which was pretty interesting and everything seemed to stem out of.
What happens here is a neighbor is killed ("Gomorrah"-motorcycle style), mistaken for another because the real target sold the car he's working on to him. This has happened because the uncle of the target paralyzed a "beduoin wanting protection money" and now the "clan he belonged to" wants to get back by killing the whole family. There is frenzied moving around before (I believe) they settle back in the same place as before. The reason I thought this was going to be the substance of the movie was because it's told from a kid named Nasri (Fouad Habash). It does have some sort of "foreboding" cliche, but I dunno. Could be interesting?
Then (complicatedly, in ways I'm not sure I can quite explain) in Chapter 2, there is another major character, Malek (Ibrahim Frege), who's an illegal immigrant working at a restaurant. His mother's sick. (Parallel: Having to pay off the clan/having to pay for his mother's "bone marrow transplant.") He has to stay inside all the time because the police are always looking. He gets involved with a guy named Binj (which is a curious name for a guy that sells crystal meth) (director Scandar Copti), who he what he thinks is meth from him and brings with him and his friend Omar (who's Nasri's brother) (Shahir Kabaha) to the forementioned event. When he leaves Binj's house to go back to his restaurant is also another event, and a nice narrative device.
If this was all the plot did and aspired to do, I would be fine, and this would be a solid movie. But it goes off into the story of the cop Dando (Eran Naim), which doesn't interest me that much. It seemed like padding to get the film from like 95-100 minutes (where the film would be without Chapter 3) to 120. I think it would be fine to get rid of this "plot strand" (common language when speaking of the "Crash"/"Crossing Over"/"Amores Perros" ilk) but Copti doesn't. Also, I missed a lot of the "religious undertones" that Ebert et al. pointed out. Sure, I noticed when the language changed from Arabic to Hebrew and back again, but I missed probably a "dimension" that pushed the film to an Oscar nomination. If it hadn't had that, wouldn't we be where we (especially "The Carpetbagger") were with "Gomorrah" (a much better film, due to perhaps it's oft-mentioned"immediacy")?
Well, the film also has a lot that seems just thrown in there, such as a relationship between Omar and "the daughter of a restaurant owner who's also a criminal helper" that Nick Davis may call "cafeteria-style" and an ending that resembles "Oldboy" or "Europa" in its structure and seems like some idiotic way to finish up. This is definitely a first film, not quite deserving of the Camera d'Or special mention it got, though not being an abomination. It just needs something more interesting or engaging about it. Ebert said that "the plot specifics don't matter," but at least they should be more interesting. This is not a bad film, just too "cluttered" (as critics say) for my understanding. C+