As its title suggests, Bethlehem, a tightly wound thriller about an Israeli secret-service officer and his Palestinian informant, has a biblical undertow.
A story of attraction and repulsion evocative of Cain and Abel, it pivots on intimate antagonists who, in another world and geopolitical time, might have been brothers. Razi (Tsahi Halevy) is an Israeli operative working in an antiterrorism unit; Sanfur (Shadi Mari) is a 17-year-old Palestinian whose older brother, Ibrahim (Hisham Suliman), is a warrior or militant or terrorist. (Take your pick.)
Sanfur lives at home with an aged, hectoring father and a mother who scarcely registers. Mostly, Sanfur just exists. Caught between Razi and Ibrahim, Sanfur has become a footnote to his brother, who, from a secret refuge, continues to lead a Palestinian cell of thugs who swagger around Bethlehem with threats and machine guns. Its a dangerous, depressingly narrow scene for anyone to inhabit, perhaps especially a put-upon teenage boy.
Early on, when Sanfur puts on a bulletproof vest and dares a friend to shoot at him (theyve been out target practicing) his motivation remains murky. Is it ordinary, reckless braggadocio or has political conviction, religion or something deeper and more desperate led this adolescent to turn himself into a target?
Whatever the case, its a combustible situation and a gradually more distressing one because this world with its violent men with their covert operations and cries of martyrdom, their bullets and their death is so numbingly familiar.
Yet if the movie feels somewhat different and better than others that touch on similar themes, its because the Israeli director Yuval Adler and his screenwriting partner, Ali Waked, an Arab journalist, arent selling the usual lessons in the usual way. Bethlehem is emphatically political, as perhaps any movie about warring Israelis and Palestinians must be.
Story and action lock into place rapidly as the focus shifts from Sanfur to Razi and back again. While Razi chases down Ibrahim, Sanfur helps funnel money to his brother from another group thats fiercely at odds with Ibrahims guerrilla cell.
In Bethlehem, loyalty is fluid, conditional and confusing, whether its a question of organizational commitment or blood. Because while Sanfur risks his life for Ibrahim, Ibrahims casual cruelty or indifference has made Sanfur vulnerable, leading Sanfur into Razis seductive sphere of influence and into the sightlines of Ibrahims graspingly ambitious comrade, Badawi (Hitham Omari, a memorable live wire).
For Sanfur, there is no peace, no safe territory, no stability and no refuge from other peoples self-interest.
At times, Bethlehem can suggest an episode of (the nonexistent) Law & Order: The Middle East, which isnt a dig. The Law & Order franchise is of wildly variable quality, and often theres not much to look at beyond clenched jaws, corpses and courtrooms.
Bethlehem offers more, notably with the acting and the political complexities, but, as in some of these cop shows, the emphasis on human goodness and evil also creates a sense of continuity for better and worse that lessens our distance from the past.
When a detective in Law & Order stares down an outrage, the specter of Old Testament judgment may flicker across her brow. In Bethlehem, that specter never flickers; its always there.
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