I’ve finally seen Yuval Adler‘s Bethlehem, the winner of six Ophir awards (including Best Picture) as well as Israel’s Best Foreign Language Feature submission. It’s a lucid, tightly wound thriller that regards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a filter of double-agenting and family matters and betrayal and anxiety. And then turns it all into tragedy. Bethlehem is a stand-out. Required viewing and then some. The Academy’s foreign language committee would be foolish not to pay heed.
Bethlehem played at Toronto and will show twice (11.9 and 11.11) at the AFI Film Fest. Adler, who worked for Israeli army intelligence for several years and has a PhD from Columbia University, will be attending along with Ali Waked, a Muslim journalist with whom he wrote the script.
Imagine if John Ford‘s The Informer was a more complex piece. 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.
Here’s a piece by Haaretz.com’s Gideon Levy that claims Bethlehem “is yet another Israeli propaganda film.” It warns that “before lavishing praise on co-director Yuval Adler, critics should stop to consider his film’s message: the Israelis are the good guys, the Arabs the bad guys.” Levy writes that “Adler’s avoidance of the [political reality] is abominable. An Israeli who makes an action movie about the intifada without taking a stand is a coward. He knows the subject will attract viewers at film festivals abroad, but at the same time doesn’t want to anger Israeli viewers.”