Israeli film “Bethlehem” sometimes loses its focus on the relationship between its two different characters as looking around many other things in the story. Its story is inherently engaging as a tense drama mixed with current topics, and there are a number of good character moments, but, unfortunately, the movie somehow gets lost and feels choppy at times whenever it looks away from its main characters.
The movie revolves around an Israeli Secret Service officer and a Palestinian teenager who has been one of his main informers. Razi (Tsahi Halevi) recruited Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i) around 2 years ago under some circumstance, and Sanfur has managed to hide this fact from others around him while being very useful to his handler. Because he is the younger brother of the leader of al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, Sanfur can get the information for Razi without drawing any possible suspicion, and Razi depends more on him especially when Sanfur’s brother goes into hiding after claiming in public that he is responsible for a recent bombing in Tel Aviv.
We see Razi taking Sanfur to a safe place where they can talk, and we sense a certain bond between them as Razi coaxes his disgruntling informer with fatherly tactfulness. While it goes without saying that he is basically pushing Sanfur to more dangerous work to do for his mission, Razi really cares about Sanfur, and he worries about the uncertain future waiting for Sanfur; he may be turned into someone like his militant brother someday because of his harsh, violent environment without much hope, and that is surely the last thing Razi wants.
To Sanfur, Razi is the only man he can openly talk with in the world where gun and violence are mundane parts of daily life. This tough but vulnerable teenager is always pressured by his brother’s reputation, and the opening scene shows him prompted to do a dangerous act of impulsive bravado by other boys during their target practice with a rifle. At his home, which is seriously damaged by a recent visit from Israeli soldiers, he does not get along well with his aging father, and his father has no idea about what his son is doing behind his back while worrying about him like any concerned father would.
Meanwhile, the movie also looks around several other characters on both sides. While Razi’s direct boss and colleagues at the headquarters are determined to capture Sanfur’s brother by any means necessary, there are some shifts within Sanfur’s neighbourhood as the leader position of Sanfur’s brother becomes empty for now. Badawi (Hitham Omari), who has been No.2 of the group, is ready to fill that position, but local authorities and some other key members of al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades are not so enthusiastic about that. It seems that there has been the possibility of temporary cease-fire, and a volatile militant like Badawi is certainly someone they do not want in their negotiation process.
While the movie does not take sides as going back and forth both sides, the chaos and desperation inside Palestine provide more memorable moments in the film. Besides being cornered by the Israeli force everyday, its society is also being cracked and divided inside, and local authorities care mostly about their position and benefit rather than public safety and order. We also witness the regional competition between al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades and Hamas, and the movie gives us a darkly absurd moment at the hospital when the members of both militant groups clash with each other literally over a dead body to be honored.
The director Yuval Adler, who also wrote the screenplay with his co-writer Ali Wakad, made a solid debut with this film on the whole (the movie won Fedeora Award at the Venice Film Festival in last year and was selected as Israel’s official submission to Best Foreign Film Oscar in the same year). Steadily maintaining the realistic tone for his story, he also made several nice scenes filled with simmering tension, and one of them is involved with Razi and his men almost closing on their main target. They have finally cornered their target who happens to be trapped inside a building, but then they must hurry due to angry local people gathering outside, and things become more and more intense along with shouts, bullets, grenades, and stones.
The movie becomes less interesting when Razi and Sanfur get separated from each other around its unfocused second act, but it thankfully focuses again on their uneasy relationship during the expected third act, and the main cast, which mainly consists of first-time actors, did a commendable job of embodying their characters. Lead actors Tsahi Halevi and Shadi Mar’i are believable in the shifting dynamics between their characters, and a few warm moments in the film are generated by their genuine human interaction on the screen. Razi and Sanfur may sincerely care about each other, but there is always uncertainty in their relationship, and then everything comes to an unavoidable point where they must deal with their urgent matter of loyalties in one way or another way.
“Bethlehem” is a competent drama which deserves to be watched for several reasons besides its hot issues, but I was also distracted by its occasional lack of focus and its other flaws. Despite that problem, I sort of recommend it with reservation mainly because of “Omar” (2013), a better film I happened to watch right after this film. I think “Omar” is more focused and powerful in its handling of a similar story subject, but I will not deny the value of “Bethlehem” as a good companion piece to “Omar”, and you will probably have a little enlightening time on their subject as watching them together.