Directed by Yuval Adler
Starring Shadi Mar’i, Tsahi Halevi, and Hitham Omari
Language: Arabic and Hebrew
Bethlehem follows 17-year old Palestinian Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i), the brother of a leader of the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, and Razi (Tsahi Halevi), the Israeli Shin Bet (secret service) officer who has recruited Sanfur as an informant. Set in Israel and the West Bank around 2004 near the end of the Second Intifada, the film explores the region’s broader conflict by examining the social connections surrounding the central characters.
The film was the debut directorial effort of Yuval Adler, an Israeli who co-wrote the film with the Palestinian journalist Ali Waked, and was Israel’s submission to the Best Foreign Language Film competition at this year’s Academy Awards.
The movie’s earnestness to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict gets the better of its narrative ambitions; its desire to portray the complexities of each side’s internal struggles overtakes the film’s narrative of the central characters’ complicated relationships. While we are told that Sanfur and Razi share a bond like father and son, the movie gives us little grounding for that claim, save a few lines of dialogue. It is therefore difficult to understand why either one would take the sorts of risks he does for the other.
This is largely because their story exists solely to propel the film’s meditation on violence, mistrust, and betrayals between and within these two communities. Bethlehem asks the viewer to at once care about the small, intimate story of a handful of characters, while expending the majority of its runtime on scenes removed from the central narrative.
The opening scene conveys the resignation to violence of Sanfur and his friends, as the boys’ game of bravado takes a dangerous turn when one challenges another to take a gunshot to the chest while wearing an old bulletproof vest they have found, as if the young characters seek empowerment through their own self-destruction. This beginning sets the tone for the whole film, with many of its scenes ending abruptly, often in violence which erupts seemingly out of nowhere. Or rather, out of a poorly established context, making the movie seem confusing and disjoint.
The focus of the film, then, is ultimately not on individual characters, but on groups and how they come together in conflict. No one comes out of this movie well — the Palestinian characters, who seemingly receive a harsher portrayal within the film, are shown fighting and bickering, while the film’s Israelis lie to and mistrust one another.
It isn’t that Bethlehem is a bad movie (it’s not). There are some technical strong points to the film in its pacing, cinematography, and the raw performances of its three leads. Mar’i, Halevim, and Omari, all non-professionals who have never previously appeared in a film, lend power and credibility to their portrayals. It’s just that the movie never rises above the weight of its subject matter to deliver on the promise of its gripping premise.
The film deserves to be seen, bringing important attention to a long-standing conflict. And though it sometimes fails to give its rich subject matter the nuanced and thoughtful consideration it deserves, perhaps it will inspire its viewers to seek out the context themselves.