Yuval Adler’s Bethlehem is a
gripping thriller based in the current reality of the Israeli-
Palestinian conflict that explores aspects of the conflict that no other
movie has addressed.
The film, which just won the Ophir Award
for Best Picture (as well as five other awards including Best Screenplay
for Adler and his co-writer, Ali Waked; Best Director; and Best
Supporting Actor for Tsachi Halevy). It also won the top prize in the
Israeli Feature Film Competition at the Haifa Film Festival and won an
important award at the Venice Film Festival.
is both a characterdriven and a carefully plotted story about the
relationship between an Israeli security officer, Razi (Tsachi Halevy)
and his teenage Palestinian informant, Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i).
It’s especially impressive that Bethlehem
is the feature film debut of its director, who co-wrote the screenplay
with Palestinian journalist Ali Waked. It focuses on both sides in the
conflict and explores the pressures on both of the main characters with
penetrating detail. Adler also has a strong sense of visual storytelling
and suspense that makes a potentially grim story entertaining.
The film opens as Sanfur plays a stupidly dangerous game with his friends in the fields around Bethlehem.
His need to prove himself to them becomes clear when he gets a call
from Razi, who needs information from Sanfur that may help prevent a
terror attack in Jerusalem. Sanfur’s brother, Ibrahim, is a wanted
terrorist on the run, and Sanfur has been informing for years, although
it seems the information he gives hasn’t been of much value. Why Sanfur
would do this is a mystery for much of the movie, but the answer turns
out to be complex. Razi and Sanfur have a close relationship, and it’s
Razi, and not his own father, to whom Sanfur turns when he is in any
kind of trouble.
That’s important because everyone is in trouble and under pressure in Bethlehem.
All the characters keep secrets from those with whom they should be
completely honest. The movie is especially interesting, as it explores
the lives of its Palestinian characters. There are rival militias – one
serving the Palestinian Authority, the other aligned with Hamas – that
are both fighting to claim Ibrahim as one of their own.
are more pressing questions at stake than political loyalty: The
militia serving one of the ministers of the Palestinian Authority hasn’t
been paid in months, and its leader. Badawi (Hitham Omari), will not
take this lying down. The alliances and betrayals among the members of
Badawi’s group and other Palestinians are constantly shifting.
weakest part of the film, however, is what should be its biggest asset:
the relationship between Razi and Sanfur. In their first scene
together, Razi tells another agent whom Sanfur feels is hostile that the
Palestinian teenager is like a son to him. No doubt I have seen too
many films about this conflict, but it was clear from then on that this
friendship would end tragically. But even more bothersome is the fact
that the bond between Razi and Sanfu, which is supposed to be
extraordinarily strong, is not portrayed clearly. At times, their
relationship seems like a plot convenience.
Shadi Mar’i gives a
solid performance as Sanfur, but it’s Tsachi Halevy who is the standout
here. Halevy, an aspiring singer who has appeared on the Israeli version
of The Voice, has real star power and is extraordinarily handsome. Fluent in Arabic, Halevy gives a compelling performance in two languages.
his skill is matched by another acting novice, Hitham Omari, as the
desperate and dangerous Badawi. Omari, lean and constantly alert, is
utterly convincing as a tightly wired man who can turn violent at any
moment. He makes Badawi into the most interesting character in the
piece. He’s not just a thug, he has principles; but he clearly takes
pride in being the toughest guy around – and in Bethlehem, that’s saying something.
In spite of the movie’s flaws, it’s engaging and intense, and Adler is a director to watch.