Bethlehem

DAY FIVE OF THE 2014 NEW YORK JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL

Hope“Sanfur” (Shadi Mar’i) is a Palestinian teen living on the West Bank who has become the informant of an Israeli Secret Service–Shabak aka Shin Bet–officer named Razi” (Tsahi Halevi).

Sanfur comes from a prominent Bethlehem family. His older brother “Ibrahim” (Hisham Suliman) is a well-known and very visible terrorist who has made himself a target by appearing as a public face on Al Jazera TV broadcasts after successful bombings.

So Razi certainly wants to cultivate Sanfur and use him as a source. But after years of interactions, a mutual bond has also grown between them. As Razi tells his superior “Levy” (Yossi Eini):  “I spend more time with this kid then I spend with my own family.” And for sure, we almost always see Razi on the job. Like most movie cops, Razi is presented as married to his job. Razi’s wife “Einat” (Michal Shtamler) barely appears in Bethlehem, and she only seems to exist in the margins of his life.

But Sanfur doesn’t have such an easy time picking sides. At its best, Bethlehem provides some insight into complex inter-Palestinian rivalries (Palestinian Authority vs Hamas vs Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade). The most charismatic character in Bethlehem is “Badawi,” a Bedouin who wants to be accepted as a Palestinian leader even though he always seems to be operating in his own zone. While short of cash and connections, Badawi is filled with verbal bravado and sheer physical courage. This makes Badawi just as much of a problem for Palestinian politicians as he is for the Shabak officers.

Hitham Omari’s dynamic performance makes Badawi the only character on screen who actually seems to be thinking strategically. However limited it may be, Badawi is always trying to expand his range of motion.

My husband Rich liked Bethlehem well enough, calling it “a good police procedural.” Rich is right about that. There are many tense chase scenes, and the extended sequence in which the Israelis first corner Sanfur’s brother Ibrahim, and then fight their way out of the neighborhood afterwards is a set piece worthy of any Hollywood action movie.

But I found Bethlehem woefully thin on the Israeli side, and almost self-congratulatory in an annoying way, as if  director Yuval Adler (who co-wrote the screenplay with Arab journalist Ali Wakad) was patting himself on the back: “See, Palestinians. We Israelis really do understand how hard things are for you.”

Bottom Line: This is the first of the films I’ve seen in Israel’s 2013 crop of Ophir Award nominees, so I haven’t seen the competitors yet. Nevertheless, I have hard time believing that Bethlehem was actually the best Israeli film of 2013. (JLH: 3/5)

Click HERE to read our FF2 Haiku.

Gone

Top Photo: “Razi” (Tsahi Halevi) & “Sanfur” (Shadi Mar’i) in a low key “bonding” moment.

Bottom Photo: “Badawi” (Hitham Omari) is always heavily armed and shadowed by “Nasser” (George Escander) one of his henchmen.

Photo Credits: Vered Adir.

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