Reality check

Director Yuval Adler’s latest movie ‘Bethlehem’ looks at both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"It focuses on both sides in the conflict " (photo credit: courtesy)
"It focuses on both sides in the conflict "
(photo credit: courtesy)
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.
Bethlehem 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.
But there 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.
The 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.
But 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.