A breathlessly melodramatic crime thriller told with tough-minded compassion, "Ajami" explores a religiously mixed neighborhood of Muslims, Jews and Christians in Tel Aviv. This is a community where turf wars, intertribal love affairs and drug deals prove as deadly as political terrorism. The film, Israel's entry for the 2009 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, braids a quintet of parallel stories into a single knot of tragedy. Any given half-hour of the film has dramatic impact; at two hours, it's a power punch to the gut.

The film doesn't present a black-and-white struggle but a kaleidoscope of hostilities. The mostly young characters in this tense melting pot feel dwarfed by the past, unmoored from the present and anxious about the future. Born into a national narrative that predetermines where they can travel, how they can work and who they can marry, they channel their ambitions into crimes as petty as undocumented restaurant work or as grandiose as street-corner gundowns. This is a place where an argument over noisy sheep can escalate into a fatal stabbing.

The dense, propulsive story begins with a drive-by shooting of a young Muslim, then pulls back to put it in context. The killing was a case of mistaken identity. The spiral of violence began when a gunman (presumably Palestinian) shot up a restaurant (assumed to be Israeli) in an extortion raid. The shooter was wounded, and the situation went before an Islamic council for a ruling to prevent an endless feud. A blood money settlement is decreed. The restaurant family must raise a fortune fast or the killings will resume; paying the protection money might have been a better deal. The family's teenagers decide that selling cocaine is the only way to get the cash, though they are hardly tough guys. Innocent lives are sucked into a pointless conflict with no discernible solution, a neat metaphor for the Mideast morass.

In overlapping chapters, the cast of characters grows, with performers who are mostly nonprofessional and uniformly convincing. Israeli cop Dando is worried about his soldier brother, kidnapped while returning from duty, and goes extra hard on Arab suspects because of it. Palestinian hipster Binj is dating a Jewish girl, alienating his homeboys. Omar, a Muslim, and Hadir, his Christian love, have to hide their crush from her powerful, bigoted father.

Co-written and directed by the Palestinian/Israeli team of Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, the film finds cruelty, social injustice and a few fragile green shoots of humanity on each side of the Middle-Eastern divide.