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Bethlehem is a tightly-wound and balanced thriller

Tags: Arts
Tsahi Halevi, left, as Israeli secret service agent Razi, and Shadi Mar’i as Sanfur in the award-winning drama Bethlehem.

The Israeli award-winning film Bethlehem has much in common with the Palestinian Oscar- nominated film Omar.

Both tell the story of a Palestinian informant working for Israel’s secret service. However, while Omar’s story was framed through the lens of its charismatic Arab protagonist, Bethlehem balances its time and perspective between both sides of the conflict.

Omar, nominated in the best foreign film category at this year’s Academy Awards (and now playing in select Canadian cities), is more riveting as a thriller than its Israel-made counterpart.

However, Bethlehem – opening on April 4 – is a more nuanced look at the rifts and relationships between Israelis and Palestinians.

In Bethlehem, which won six Ophir Awards (Israel’s Oscars), the Palestinian informant is a gangly but gutsy teen, Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i, who looks like the Middle Eastern equivalent of Michael Cera). His brother, Ibrahim (Hisham Suliman), is a wanted terrorist that Israeli intelligence agent Razi (Tsahi Halevi) has been trying to capture for a year.

When Ibrahim takes responsibility for a suicide bombing in Jerusalem, Razi tries to get Sanfur to give up his brother’s whereabouts. Razi and Sanfur have a close relationship, although Sanfur is not comfortable betraying his brother.

In the midst of this confusion, Sanfur feels invincible. In Bethlehem’s opening scene, he straps on a bulletproof vest and asks one of his friends to shoot him. Always in Ibrahim’s shadow, Sanfur wants to prove that he has power. When he tries out the vest in a later scene and shoots himself in the stomach, he ends up with a bloody wound, a potent metaphor for the collateral damage that inevitably arises despite the hope of security.

The plot thickens when the secret service gets word that Sanfur may be transferring money to his brother, who has links to both Hamas and the al-Aqsa Brigade. Razi’s boss, Levy (Yossi Eini), wants his agent to break ties with Sanfur if the teen does not provide a path to capture Ibrahim. (Levy refers to Sanfur as Esau, an obvious allegory).

Bethlehem is in Hebrew and Arabic, with English subtitles. It is the film debut of Israeli director Yuval Adler, an Israeli Jew who worked in military intelligence. Adler co-wrote the script with Ali Wakad, a Palestinian journalist. Their knowledge of Israeli politics adds authenticity to the drama. Their collaboration is likely why Bethlehem is a more balanced, intricate view of Israeli-Palestinian relations than Omar.

Unlike Omar, which portrayed neither side in a positive light, yet invested the audience in the plight of a Palestinian terrorist, Bethlehem shows the humanity and menace on both sides. As balanced as the drama is, though, Bethlehem is more sympathetic to the Israelis.

Most of the actors are newcomers, including Halevi and Mar’i. (Halevi is a former dancer and singer, although you would never guess it from his deeply arresting performance.) Both give tremendous turns as men trying to figure out their next move in a geopolitical realm where it is hard to feel protective or heroic. Mar’i and Halevi depict both the humanity and difficulty of everyday life on their anguished faces, and their scenes together are very touching.

If the film falters in any way, it is in illuminating the bond between the unstable Sanfur, who keeps moving between his allegiance to the Israelis and his Palestinian brethren, and Razi, also torn between his friendship for the teen and his patriotic duties. A few more scenes to explain the roots of their alliance would have made the climactic scene, when the two men confront each other, more suspenseful and significant.

Adler uses the camera less as a way to angle certain Israeli or Palestinian characters as heroes or villains but shoots much of the film head on, making it an  objective observer that does not side with anyone. (Yaron Scharf, who also photographed the Oscar-nominated Footnote, is the cinematographer.)

Bethlehem portrays the Palestinians with depth, but also bitter honesty. After the Israelis bring down a terrorist, we see groups of Palestinians mourning and crying, as cameramen shoot their woe and misery. As soon as a terrorist group comes into the building to speak more menacingly about retribution for the dead man’s death, they order the videographers to turn the cameras off.

The film also explores the rifts between Palestinians in terms of class, racial descent and political division: There is even a schism, as in reality, with the goals of different terrorist groups. Few films from the region have explored these tensions as acutely. Some of the musical choices are a bit overwrought, with dark, trembling music playing over some of the Palestinian violence.

Bleak but boldly acted, Bethlehem is one of the best explorations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in modern cinema. Although not quite as taut a thriller as Omar, it is a more balanced examination of the ties that bind and break between the two populations.

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