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.
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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.