Time for another Israeli film about how the terrible conflicts in that region are ultimately between well-intentioned people on both sides who just want to go about the business of being human, but can't quite figure out how! Ah, yes, it's an evergreen subject, but no matter how often we see Israeli filmmakers approach this subject (and damn near every Israeli movie that gets released in the English-speaking world is some variation upon this theme), they never manage to stop being good. So it is with Ajami, which is hardly perfect - it is simultaneously too aware of its own profundity and much too enchanted by the structural tricks used to give it some aesthetic heft - but is nevertheless a fine entrant in the annals of what has been one of the more durable national cinemas in the last handful of years.

Ajami is the name of a neighborhood in the old city of Jaffa, a predominately Arab metropolis until the middle of the 20th Century, when it was swallowed up by its fast-growing new neighbor, the infant city of Tel Aviv. Ajami is something of a melting-pot community: Muslim Arabs, Christian Arabs, and Jews all live together in sometimes uneasy harmony there, and it is this delicate social balancing act that the film, co-directed and co-written by Scandar Copti (a Christian) and Yaron Shani (a Jew), explores in no small detail over its two hours, although it is less a social study than a slice-of-life story about what happens when that balance is very badly disrupted.

Superficially, you could do worse than to think of it as "Crash in Israel"; it similarly involves a sprawling cast whose stories end up intersecting in ways that aren't apparent from the first, and its very explicitly-stated theme is "getting along is hard when tribalism gets in the way", but I don't want to do Copti and Shani the immense disservice of comparing them to Paul Haggis. Ajami, for all that it is unmistakable and unsubtle, has an honest urgency born from the filmmakers' very specific personal histories, and it has a definite clever streak that keeps it from feeling like a harangue. Rather than making any sweeping statements about cultural difference, the film's primary aim is to unsettle the audience, to make us ask the questions for ourselves. Here is a film in which there are not good people or bad people; in one moment we can be tremendously sympathetic to a character's ties to his family or his people, and only a scene or two later be confronted with the realisation that this same man can do terrible things when roused to it. There are just plain people in the film, who have been stuck with the bill for a centuries-old blood feud, and are too busy trying to get by in a place where everyone is tense constantly to have the luxury of reflecting on the meaning of it all.

The film is divided into five chapters, each telling a different story that overlaps with the others; though it accordingly lacks a protagonist by any definition of that word, the three characters we spend the most time with are Omar (Shair Kabaha), an Arab trying to protect his family from gang violence, Malek (Ibrahim Frege), a young Palestinian illegally working in Tel Aviv to raise money for his dying mother, and Dando (Eran Naim), an Israeli policeman whose soldier brother has gone missing. These characters, like most everyone else in the film, are portrayed by non-professional actors in a heavily improvised environment; you can't really tell, though (although maybe if you're a speaker of Arabic and Hebrew, you could), unless it's that there's a bit of freshness that comes from the actors not knowing exactly what's going to happen at any moment. At any rate, there's none of the awkwardness that often comes from both non-professionals and improv.

It's also chronologically discontinuous, in an understated way that rewards multiple viewings and grants no mercy to the viewer who isn't carefully attentive. The whole edifice is actually a rather engaging intellectual puzzle in that respect, and this is part of what keeps Ajami from sliding into the dubious territory of a mere message picture; Copti and Shani are very careful to make sure the thing crackles with life, and is entertaining. Now, the details of the puzzle are a bit simplistic, maybe; the whole thing rather unexpectedly proves to be a grand crime drama of sorts, and not an especially compelling one. But the truthfulness of the characters shines through any genre trappings, and grants the movie emotional heft, despite itself. Certainly, the canny use of repeated motifs helps to grant Ajami depth beyond what its surface-level content would suggest.

As keen as I am on most of the film's narrative and thematic elements, I'll admit to be a bit unmoved by its craftsmanship; it's shot by Boaz Yehonatan Yaacov with a limited color palette that helps to suggest the ugliness of the Ajami community; it's dusty and bland, and not a very happy place to find yourself, which fits given how many of the characters seem unhappy. It's also hand-held, and relies to an inordinate degree on medium close-ups; there's very little visually to distinguish the film from most of the other serious tales of life in turmoil that use exactly the same aesthetic, and long before it's over, Ajami crosses the line from being deliberately and pointedly drab to just looking boring. Not that a story about the three-way tension between Arabs, Jews and Christians in the Middle East needs to be or should be flashy and dazzling; but the visual style is so perfectly anonymous that it leaves the script - or whatever passes for "the script" in a mostly-improvised story - to do virtually all of the heavy lifting.

And frankly, that works, because the scenario of the film is in fact that strong. It presents a broad view of Israeli society that includes very few details that we have never seen before, but it's mostly true that we've never seen all of them combined into one overarching scheme like this. It is undeniably a deeply felt project; it has the observational detail of a documentary, and is similarly revealing about the world in which it takes place. No masterpiece, to be sure, but a welcome contribution to the endless discussion about how an intractable situation remains intractable, and the regrettable human cost involved on all sides.