Bethlehem wants to be a lot of things. It wants to be a psychological thriller. It wants to be a political epic. It wants to be a complex examination of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It doesn’t quite accomplish any of these aspirations.
Bethlehem is the first feature by Yuval Adler. Adler is Israeli and Jewish. He wrote the screen play with Ali Wakak, a Palestinian journalist. The movie chronicles the relationship between Razi (Tsahi Halevi) and Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i). Razi is a member of Israeli’s intelligence agency. Sanfur is one of Razi’s informants and the younger brother of Ibrahim, a charismatic militant leader who has successfully executed a series of suicide bombings and pledges continued aggression.
Nominally, the film is about betrayal. Sanfur has begun informing on his brother, but when he transfers money to Hamas under Razi’s nose, his loyalty is questioned. Razi and Sanfur have a paternal relationship, and the film clearly wants to examine the moral ambiguity inherent in Sanfur’s divided loyalties. The Holy Land seems an ideal choice for this sort of conundrum. After all, was not Israel home to one of the greatest betrayals in written history—that of Judas and Christ?
The problem with Alder’s narrative is his political bias. It’s obvious that Adler views Razi as the hero of the film and Israel as the ultimate victim in the conflict.
While Sanfur is forced to choose between his real family and his quasi father, Razi’s loyalty is never questioned. This isn’t because Razi is a fanatic Zionist (this might have been more interesting), but because Razi’s cause is portrayed as more just than Sanfur’s. Razi is trying to prevent violence whereas Ibrahim and his ilk are depicted as the sole perpetrators of it.
Adler never examines the reasons behind Palestine’s aggression, nor does he demonstrate the cruel ways in which Israel often deals with the Palestinian people. Adler never shows us the check points that have come to symbolize Israeli occupation. We never see the stark economic contrast between the lives of the Israeli people and the lives of the Palestinians. We also never see the huge walls that surround Bethlehem. If Adler’s version is to be believed, the root of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the irrational depravity of the Palestinians.
Adler shows Razi’s relationship with his men (including Sanfur) as tough but respectful—sometimes even affectionate. Ibrahim, on the other hand, brutalizes his troops. He and his lieutenant, Badawi, purge their soldiers on the mere suspicion of treachery.
Adler’s bias transforms Bethlehem from what could have been an insightful examination of the regional conflict into a sort of common police procedural. There are some really great police procedurals out there, but in Adler’s film most of the action happens off stage. The characters are so one-dimensional (Badawi is villainously evil, Razi is unendingly principled, etc.) that it’s hard to invest in anyone. The climax of the film is an eighteen-minute-long man hunt a la Zero Dark Thirty, except this one is boring and kills what little momentum the film has built up.
Given how willfully Adler ignores the context of the region’s politics, I’m forced to wonder why he chose Israel as the location for the story? Surely he could have set it in any number of other locations—why was it important to make the film about Israel if he then edited out all the complexities associated with that part of the world?
Walking away from the movie, however, I’m glad that it exists—if for no other reason than to instigate discussions about the morality of the ongoing crisis in Israel and Palestine.
Director: Yuval Adler
Writer: Yuval Adler, Ali Wakad
Starring: Tsahi Halevi, Shadi Mar’i, Hitham Omari
Release Date: Mar. 7th, 2014