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.
But this is just the beginning of Ajami's intricate web of characters and stories, all of them interrelated. Abu Elias employs a 16-year-old boy named Malek (Ibrahim Frege), an illegal immigrant from the West Bank trying to make money to help his ailing mother. Malek and Omar have an amiable pal, Binj (Scandar Copti, also one of the writer-directors), who might be in some drug-related trouble. A cop named Dando (Eran Naim) is searching for his brother.

All of this is what appears to be going on, anyway. The film -- written and directed by Scandar Copti (an Israeli Arab) and Yaron Shani (a Jew), their first feature -- presents its "chapters" out of chronological order, allowing the story to double back and present things from different points of view. We discover that many of our assumptions were wrong, and that having more of the facts lets us see things more clearly. The movie begins with an innocent bystander being shot because he was mistaken for Omar. That tragic error encapsulates the rest of the film, which is all about sad misunderstandings.

Comparisons to Crash are inevitable, as are observations that Ajami takes what Crash tried to do and does a much, much better job of it. Copti and Shani used mostly nonprofessional actors and let them improvise much of their dialogue, giving the film a vividly authentic feel. The coincidences that connect the characters are organic, not contrived, and seem representative of the way strangers' lives really do intersect. "I know I can feel what is about to happen," Nasri says in narration at the very beginning, and a sense of dread hangs over the entire film.

Ajami, nominated for an Oscar in the foreign-language category, is bleak, but not in a dreary, oppressive way -- more in a suspenseful way, the way certain good movies can take us to dark places without leaving us there. Tel Aviv's seedy underbelly resembles the ones all big cities have, but Copti and Shani's personal connection to it makes it resonate more deeply. They don't assign blame, either: Whether Muslim, Christian, or Jewish, all of these characters are flawed -- and relatable -- because they're human.

(Screened at the Portland International Film Festival. The film is also playing theatrically in limited release.)