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City Beaten 

Israeli 'Ajami' offers good wishes from a bad neighborhood


The Israeli contender for the best foreign film Oscar is framed with a child's narrative of "the worst time of my life." The boy who says this is Nasri (Fouad Habash), who sketches the murders taking place around him in a graphic novel. The tale begins with a shooting: Nasri's uncle plugged a Bedouin gangster who was demanding protection money. Retaliation was swift: the family business was burned, and the uncle was paralyzed by bullets.

Vengeance demands more blood. Nasri's 19-year-old brother, Omar (Shahir Kabaha), is now the family's oldest, hiding until he can beg for help from the Christian Arab fixer Abu Elias (Youssef Sahwani), a plump, unibrowed owner of a fancy restaurant and bar. Abu Elias has a sweet daughter, Hadir (Ranin Karim), who is deeply in love with Omar. The story spins out: Omar and his family get drastically indebted in man-gelt to the Bedouins, who want $57,000 to call off the feud. A young illegal alien comes in to work for Abu Elias, and bad times cascade. A street scuffle between a gentrifying Israeli and the boys in the 'hood turns homicidal and brings in the police.

Ajami strives to be the bio of an entire bad neighborhood. You feel like you've seen something. You visit a place where the violence never stops, where gunmen shoot each other's brothers and then lament that fate or honor forced them to do it. Yet like so many of these ghetto movies, Ajami lacks a real core. Of course, such a core would pose—or even answer—the question "What is to be done?"

Ajami opens on Friday, April 9, at the Rialto Lakeside Cinemas, 551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa. 707.525.4840.

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