Bethlehem is a city with layers: the Old Testament’s city of David, the New Testament’s birthplace of Jesus, and now a frontier town on the edge of one of the world’s most violent borders with many ideologies scrabbling for a foothold in a relatively small city. Yuval Adler’s film by the same name has similarly divided allegiances. Set in Bethlehem, the film is a thriller and a relatively conventional one, with much of the posturing of a police procedural (CSI, NCIS, Law and Order). Its main narrative follows Razi (Tsahi Halevi), an Israeli intelligence agent and Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i), his teenaged Palestinian asset. Sanfur’s older brother Ibrahim (Hisham Suliman) is a leader in the resistance, though currently in hiding, and most of the film’s suspense comes from the paternal relationship between Razi and Sanfur as the agent tries to get information on an upcoming attack.
Director: Yuval Adler
Producers: Sébastien Delloye, Diana Elbaum, Sonja Ewers, Osnat Handelsman-Keren, Steve Hudson, Talia Kleinhendler
Writers: Yuval Adler, Ali Wakad
Cinematographer: Yaron Scharf
Editor: Ron Omer
Music: Ishai Adar
Cast: Tsahi Halevi, Shadi Mar’i, Hitham Omari, Michal Shtamler, Tarik Kopty, Hisham Suliman
Premiere: August 28, 2013 – Venice Film Festival
US Release: March 7, 2014
US Distributor: Adopt Films
But Adler also inserts elements of vague social critique making his thriller plotline a halfhearted one. The intricacies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are explored, but only superficially, not deeply enough to make any real statements. We see the various factions represented, the harsh, by-the-book IDF, the corrupt PLO, the Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigades, and even Hamas, shown as a group of well-funded fanatics, but these groups and factions feel more like a setting, window dressing disguising the action/thriller archetypes that populate most of the film’s speaking roles. There is no real exploration of the world on the ground, nor any attempt at honest portrayal; this is a cop drama set in the Middle East.
Razi is our good cop, the only Israeli who cares whether his teenage asset lives or dies. Badawi (Hitham Omari) is the film’s heavy, the thuggish yet honorable leader of a small Al Aqsa Brigade who works with Ibrahim. His presence brings with it an implied threat of violence, but not much else. The only character that feels complete is Sanfur, a brooding teenager living in the shadow of his famous (or infamous) brother. The film opens with Sanfur playing tough with a gang of other 15-year-olds, shooting an old Kalashnikov and a road sign. The activity quickly devolves into a game of chicken in which they dare each other to put on a ratty bulletproof vest and take a shot in the chest; Sanfur, the young hothead, taunts his friend, “Shoot [me] or I’ll kick your ass.”
Alder’s depiction of teenage machismo is spot on, and Mar’i (in his first screen role) is stunning. He sulks or rages or helplessly turns to the adults who surround him (his father, his IDF handler, or his brother’s ally), just like any angsty teen his age. He is woefully unaware of the gravity of his situation, and his irresponsible, moody, arrogant, and self-centered, persona causes conflict with all parties. Yet under all the layers of emotional armor and bravado, there are glimpses of a sweet kid, caught up in this mess and trying to do the right thing; whether it is helping his brother in the resistance or ratting him out to the Israelis is Bethlehem’s central question.
As a thriller this is passable fare—certainly nothing out of the ordinary. Its action sequences are exciting, if a bit dragged out, its constructed suspense relatively compelling, and its violence is affecting. Its social commentary is something different, tacked on and sophomoric in scope. This story could have as easily been set in an inner city gang, a crime syndicate or cartel, or a nefarious foreign country—needing only the motivation for a police informant—and its positioning in a political hotbed seems engineered to attract divergent viewers rather than spark constructive conversation. But it’s saved from pure tedium by its teenaged lead who elevates it from an episode of Law and Order to something more beautiful and nuanced, despite its flaws.