POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Mar 14, 2014
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 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, he just exists. Caught between Razi and Ibrahim, Sanfur is 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, especially a 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?
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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 from and better than others that touch on similar themes, it's because 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. Yet its ideas are more complex than is suggested by either its schematic story or fast-moving genre elements, like its running and fighting men, its racing cars and firing guns.
Those parts lock into place rapidly as the story's 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.
As the story and characters hurtle forward, a portrait of Sanfur, who's both more fragile and tough than he initially seems, comes into view alongside that of Razi, who's similarly shaded. (The relationship superficially recalls the one between another agent and informant in the recently released "Omar.") The filmmakers play up the similarities between Sanfur and Razi, even in the casting of the actors. Yet while such details underscore the shared humanity of the characters, and maybe even their genes, the filmmakers don't settle for palliatives. Each side is wrong, each side is right, and both have their brutalities. Razi's smiles hide a ghastly past, and some of the Palestinian militants seem more interested in the dead than the living, as in a blunt, chaotic scene, in which they struggle over a martyr's corpse.
At times, as when Razi is yelling into a car radio or navigating office politics, "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.
In Hebrew and Arabic, with English subtitles.
Review by Manohla Dargis, New York Times