The Middle East is such a powder keg that we've come to assume every film from that region will be ABOUT the fact that it's a powder keg. Ajami is what you'd expect in that regard, but in nearly every other way it's a surprise, a bold and serious film about the frail threads that keep -- or fail to keep -- a society from falling apart.

The title refers to a rather sketchy neighborhood in the Israeli city of Jaffa, where Muslims, Christians, and Jews live uneasily with each other. To begin with, a teenager is gunned down outside his house. Our narrator, a young boy named Nasri (Fouad Habash), lives next door and reports that the intended victim was his 19-year-old brother, Omar (Shahir Kabaha), a decent young man who became a target for a Bedouin group only because Omar's uncle shot one of them. Sure, the guy was trying to rob Omar's uncle's restaurant, but that's not considered a valid reason for shooting him. And so it goes.

Abu Elias (Youssef Sahwani), a powerful godfather type who controls much of the neighborhood, steps in as moderator between Omar's family and the Bedouins, the result being that Omar is in debt to Abu Elias, and woe betide anyone who falls in debt to Abu Elias. Complicating matters for Omar: he and Abu Elias' daughter, Hadir (Ranin Karim), want to get married but must keep their love a secret because Abu Elias forbids it.