Social commentators lament the lonely individualism of Americans, and pinpoint the loss of community as a source of malaise. We detach ourselves all too soon and completely from our roots, cocooning our lives within 24/7 jobs and the sort of technology that keeps us on call for business and emergencies but not for intimacy. And surely the custom of seeking advice from elders and support from the extended family is a thing of the past.

But the Arab-Israeli film Ajami may make you wonder if lonely individualism is really such a bad thing. In the small town in Israel where the Arab youth Omar lives with his widowed mother and two younger brothers, Malek and Nasri, the authority of the extended family, the clan, is supreme. If you need help, the clan will help you. But if you have offended another clan, everyone in your own is accountable. Is this not a good thing? Isn’t family honor a better safeguard of social unity than the impersonal workings of the state? Well...

In Ajami’s first scene, an assassin on a motorcycle shoots down a boy repairing Omar’s car. The child had offended nobody but had been mistaken for Omar. And whom had Omar offended? Nobody. But his uncle had recently shot and crippled a thug who was trying to extort money from him, and the thug’s Bedouin relatives, seeking revenge but temporarily unable to kill the uncle, settled for his nephew. Once they realize their mistake, do the Bedouins repent or desist? Not at all. The...

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About the Author

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.