May 1, 2014

‘Bethlehem’: Loyalty, terror and death in the Mideast

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 Mar’i) 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. It’s 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 (they’ve 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, it’s 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, it’s because the Israeli director Yuval Adler and his screenwriting partner, Ali Waked, an Arab journalist, aren’t 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 that’s fiercely at odds with Ibrahim’s guerrilla cell.

In “Bethlehem,” loyalty is fluid, conditional and confusing, whether it’s a question of organizational commitment or blood. Because while Sanfur risks his life for Ibrahim, Ibrahim’s casual cruelty or indifference has made Sanfur vulnerable, leading Sanfur into Razi’s seductive sphere of influence and into the sightlines of Ibrahim’s 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 people’s self-interest.

At times, “Bethlehem” can suggest an episode of (the nonexistent) “Law & Order: The Middle East,” which isn’t a dig. The “Law & Order” franchise is of wildly variable quality, and often there’s 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; it’s always there.

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