Bethlehem, Israel’s entry for the best foreign film Oscar, is an entertaining film, but also an uncompromising one. It is harsh and not particularly hopeful, and it presents a situation so tangled and contorted, with so many interests in collision, that that a lasting peace between the Israelis and Palestinians seems a distant prospect.
In a way, the film’s illumination of the circumstances in Bethlehem is its greatest selling point. Yes, it’s a good movie, but there are lots of good movies. But only this good movie gives you a unique and detailed view of the political situation in Bethlehem, the home of the Palestinian authority, occupied by Israel.
One thing Bethlehem shows convincingly is that there is no one Palestinian point of view. There isn’t even one ultimate Palestinian goal. What’s more, even among Palestinian groups that share the same goals and methods, there is competition for popular favor and for political influence. This is cleverly conveyed in a crazy scene, in which two terrorist groups show up at a terrorist’s funeral and get into a fight over which one can claim the body.
Against this backdrop, a personal story weaves in and out of the action. Razi (Tsahi Halevi), an Israeli Secret Service officer, has, as his principal informant, a Palestinian teenager named Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i), a tough kid whose idea of an interesting time is to try on bulletproof vests and have friends shoot him. Sanfur, the brother of a terrorist, knows all the big players and is essential in preventing suicide attacks.
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The relationship is fraught on both sides. Razi has genuine affection for Sanfur, but he is, at least to some degree, exploiting him. And Sanfur is a troubled kid, confused in his loyalties, surrounded by fanatics, and full of violent impulses. It’s a striking performance from first-time actor Shadi Mar’i — indeed only now does it even occur to me that that Mar’i was acting. His performance is so immediate, so apparently real, that it feels like you’re watching a documentary.
Director Yuval Adler has a big vision, one capable of looking upon unsympathetic characters with sympathy or at least humane comprehension. There’s a memorable sequence in which a terrorist is fleeing Israeli soldiers. At first one’s sympathies are entirely with the soldiers, but then gradually Adler puts us into the skin of the trapped man, and so the full sadness of the moment is felt from all sides.
In Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles
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Director: Yuval Adler
Cast: Tsahi Halevi, Shadi Mar’i
Running time: 99 min.