×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Venice Film Review: ‘Bethlehem’

This tightly wound clock-ticking thriller examines the Arab-Israeli conflict to impressive effect.

With:

Shadi Mar'I, Tsahi Halevy, Hitham Omari, Tarek Copti, Michal Shtemler, Hisham Suliman, George Iskandar, Yossi Eini, Efrat Shnap, Karem Shakur, Ibrahim Sakala. (Arabic, Hebrew dialogue)

Debuting Israeli writer-helmer Yuval Adler and Palestinian co-scripter Ali Waked combine forces and their own intimate knowledge of the contempo Arab-Israeli conflict to impressive effect in “Bethlehem,” a tightly wound clock-ticking thriller. Centered around the fraught relationship between an Israeli intelligence officer and his conflicted Palestinian informant, the plot sifts through the moral complexities of the situation in such a way as to seem admirably evenhanded, although there are bound to be partisan viewers from both camps who will strive to find offense somewhere. Televisual in the most complimentary sense of the word, “Bethlehem” should see its star rise in numerous offshore territories.

Volatile 17-year-old Sanfur (non-pro thesp Shadi Mar’I, whose acting chops deepen as the pic progresses) is the younger brother of, and go-between for, Palestinian militia leader Ibrahim (Hisham Suliman), a public enemy No. 3 or 4 who’s desperately being sought by the Israeli secret service. Unbeknownst to Ibrahim or anyone else in his family or militant unit, for two years Sanfur has been drip-feeding intel to Israeli military intelligence officer Razi (Tsahi Halevy, another non-pro who served in an elite unit of the Israeli army).

An early scene, in which Razi counsels Sanfur not to let a teenage peer get to him, illustrates that the bond between Sanfur and Razi is much more predicated on a surrogate father-son intimacy than on the money the spymaster slips the young double agent. That’s all too understandable, as later scenes between Sanfur and his real father (Tarek Copti) make clear that his biological family only really cares about Ibrahim, the family hero to whom Sanfur could never measure up.

Popular on Variety

From the co-orbiting bodies of Sanfur and Razi, the pic’s focus expands to encompass a whole solar system of interlocking characters, including Ibrahim’s ambitious, duplicitous lieutenant Badawi (Hitham Omari, a news cameraman in real life, and arguably the film’s most impressive non-pro discovery); manipulative Palestinian Authority politician Abu Mussa (Karem Shakur); and Razi’s co-workers Levi (Yossi Eini) and Maya (Efrat Shnap), among many others. Suicide bombers strike, interference from Hamas muddies the waters between the Palestinian factions, and Razi struggles to protect Sanfur’s life even as he exploits his trust while the pic’s crammed 99-minute running time sprints by, leaving a comet trail of sharply cut suspense and chase sequences.

Indeed, given the broad cast of characters, the depth of insider understanding that Adler and Waked’s script conveys, and the no-skin-pore-not-in-focus look of Yaron Scharf’s digital lensing, the thought often occurs that this might have worked even better as longer-form TV fiction, along the lines of Israeli series “Prisoners of War” (aka “Hatufim”) the show from which U.S. hit “Homeland” was adapted. As is, “Bethlehem” sometimes feels in too much of a rush to illustrate a moral spectrum through plot mechanics, sometimes at the cost of character dimensionality (the women, in particular, get short shrift). Consequently, the film packs less of an emotional wallop than other films that have covered similar ground, such as Hany Abu-Assad’s “Paradise Now.” Nevertheless, the film comprises an impressive directorial debut for Adler who demonstrates a confident grasp of pace, place and thesp handling.

Venice Film Review: 'Bethlehem'

Reviewed at Soho House, London, Aug. 23, 2013. (In Venice Film Festival — Venice Days; Telluride Film Festival; Toronto Film Festival — Discovery.) Running time: 99 MIN.

Production:

(U.K.-Israel-Belgium-Germany) A WestEnd Films presentation of a Pie Films production in co-production with Entre Chien et Loup, Gringo Films, with the support of Argos, the Israel Film Fund, the Jerusalem Film and Television Fund, Yes Satellite Television, Cenre du Cinema et de L’Audiovisuel de la Federation Wallonie-Bruxelles et de Voo, Film und Medienstiftung NRW. (International sales: WestEnd Films, London.) Produced by Talia Kleinhandler, Osnat Handelsman-Keren, Diana Elbaum, Sebastian Delloye, Steve Hudson, Sonja Ewers. Executive producer, Ephraim Gildor.

Crew:

Directed by Yuval Adler. Screenplay, Adler, Ali Waked. Camera (color, HD), Yaron Scharf; editor, Ron Omer; music, Ishai Adar; production designer, Yoav Sinai; costume designer, Li Alembik; sound (Dolby Digital), Dirk Bombay, Philippe Bauduhin; sound designer, Francois Dumont; line producer, Zehava Shekel; associate producer, Hamoudie Boqaie; assistant directors, Avi Satat, Raanan Tesler; casting, Liron Zohar, Naama Zaltzman.

With:

Shadi Mar'I, Tsahi Halevy, Hitham Omari, Tarek Copti, Michal Shtemler, Hisham Suliman, George Iskandar, Yossi Eini, Efrat Shnap, Karem Shakur, Ibrahim Sakala. (Arabic, Hebrew dialogue)

More Film

  • Martin Scorsese'The Irishman' film premiere, Arrivals,

    Martin Scorsese's 'Killers of the Flower Moon' Set for Italy Release Via RAI Cinema

    Martin Scorsese’s next film, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” will be released in Italian cinemas by RAI Cinema’s 01 Distribution unit, the company said Wednesday. The period murder mystery is based on a real-life incident and will star Leonardo DiCaprio. Robert De Niro is also believed to be on board the project. Shooting is expected [...]

  • Universal Music U.K. Poaches BBC’s Alice

    Universal Music Poaches BBC’s Alice Webb to Run Eagle Rock

    Alice Webb is moving from the BBC to Eagle Rock, the Universal Music U.K.-backed producer and distributor of music programming. Webb has held several senior roles in a 15-year career at the BBC including head of its kids unit and COO of its BBC North division, overseeing the relocation of key departments from London to [...]

  • Bombshell Charlize Theron Nicole Kidman Margot

    'Once Upon a Time,' 'Bombshell,' 'Irishman' Top SAG Awards Nominations 2020

    “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” “Bombshell,” and “The Irishman” led the nominations for the 2020 Screen Actors Guild Awards, picking up four nods apiece. All three films will compete for the top prize, best ensemble, along with “Parasite” and “Jojo Rabbit.” Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is an ode to the [...]

  • SAG Awards Placeholder

    SAG Award Nominations: The Complete List

    Screen Actors Guild Awards nominations were announced Wednesday morning, with Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” and Jay Roach’s “Bombshell” dominating nods on the film front. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” with Rachel Brosnanhan led the pack among TV shows. “Superstore” star America Ferrera and “Black Panther” actress Danai Gurira [...]

  • Joker

    'Joker,' 'Irishman,' 'Parasite' Receive ACE Eddie Awards Nominations

    The American Cinema Editors has nominated “Ford v Ferrari,” “Joker,” “The Irishman,” “Marriage Story” and “Parasite” for its ACE Eddie top feature film drama award. “Dolemite Is My Name,” “The Farewell,” “Jojo Rabbit,” “Knives Out” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” received nominations in the feature comedy category. Nominated animated films include “Frozen 2,” [...]

  • SAG Awards Placeholder

    How to Watch the SAG Awards Nominations Live

    America Ferrera and Danai Gurira will announce the nominations for the 26th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards on Wednesday at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, Calif., beginning at 7 a.m. PT. The announcement will air live on TNT, TBS and truTV, and stream on YouTube, tntdrama.com/sag-awards, truTV.com and sagawards.org. The SAG Awards nominations [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content