Last weekend the Spirit Awards gang should have handed a special indie passion trophy last weekend to Jeff Lipsky‘s Adopt Films. The New York-based outfit is distributing two admired but markedly similar West Bank thrillers — Yuval Adler‘s Bethlehem (opening 3.7) and Hany Abu-Assad‘s Oscar-nominated Omar. Lucid, taut and suspenseful, they both regard the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a filter of double-agenting, family ties, anxiety and betrayal. And they both end in a sudden burst of violence. You have to see them both. They don’t compete with each other as much as form a greater sum.
“Imagine if John Ford‘s The Informer was a more complex piece,” I wrote in an 11.3.13 piece called “Late to Bethlehem.” “Imagine if Gypo Nolan wasn’t a sentimental, feeble-minded drunk blowing his money and stumbling around and bellowing like a bison. Imagine if Gypo was semi-intelligent and had an older brother in the IRA whom he resents but runs errands for from time to time. Imagine if several more plot elements and complex turns were thrown into the pot. That’s Bethlehem — a first-rate intelligence drama that grabs and holds.
“Bethlehem is primarily a two-character drama about deceivers on opposite sides. At the same time it’s a curiously touching father-son relationship story.
“17-year-old Sanfur (Shadi Mar’I) is the pissed-off younger brother of Ibrahim (Hisham Suliman), a hardcore Palestinian militia leader whom the Israelis want to assassinate. We learn early on just how pissed-off Sanfur is. For the last couple of years he’s been slipping dribs and drabs of information to Israeli Shin Bet officer Razi (Tsahi Halevy), who is hungry, of course, for info about Ibrahim.
“Why is Sanfur betraying his brother, family and community by talking to the enemy, to an Israeli agent who would like nothing more than to eliminate Ibrahim and his comrades? Sanfur was first approached by Razi at age 15, when he was more or less soft clay. Razi is more of a comforter than an interrogator. When we meet Sanfur’s actual father (Tarek Copti) it’s clear that Ibrahim is regarded as the star of the family and that Sanfur is seen as the runt of the litter, a volatile kid whom nobody respects.
“The decisive dramatic moment happens when the Shin Bet team manages to finally hit Ibrahim. Guilt kicks in, suspicions surface, tensions heat up, something has to give. The big climax is quite a moment. You can tell going in that this story won’t end ‘well,’ and it doesn’t. But the unfolding is tense and edgy in a low-key sort of way, and highly believable start to finish.”