Westerners sometimes wonder why Israel is so, well, mean. Why can’t they just get along with everyone?
I can only speculate on Yuval Adler’s reasons behind directing and writing Bethlehem, but I wonder if part of it was to answer this question. In Bethlehem, being mean can save your life.
Set in modern-day Israel, Bethlehem (unrated) follows adolescent Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i) and Razi (Tsahi Halevi), a member of Israel’s Secret Service tasked with capturing or killing Sanfur’s brother, a notorious terrorist. Sanfur is caught between Razi, who is using him as an informant, and Badawi (Hitham Omari), an ambitious terrorist trying to steal credibility and power from Hamas by whatever means necessary. All of these men are locked in the middle of a behind-the-scenes war, and when the shooting starts, their battlefield is Sanfur’s hometown, Bethlehem.
This struggle is not between the armies of nations, but between a few men all vying for control. Intelligence and information are deadlier weapons than guns; and money, fear, and ideology are the most common motivators.
Bethlehem handles its grim content very well. Everything is designed to be believable: The story is simple yet unpredictable, and the actors (who speak Hebrew or Arabic the entire movie) are sometimes rough around the edges. The acting is bland, but good enough not to shake our suspension of disbelief. The cinematography is solid, but not particularly brilliant, although it does casually sweep up a great deal of beautiful scenery. Even the action sequences are frank, gritty, and often brutal. In many ways, it is unlike many Western thrillers, which feature handsome heroes dashing off witty punch lines before engaging in rollicking sprees of stylized violence. Fun, yes, but deep down we know that’s not how it really is.
Bethlehem is not fun, but it does look very real. So real, in fact, that when the movie is over we may find ourselves preferring romanticized plots and unrealistic underdog stories. The wounds Bethlehem inflicts on its characters and audience never heal, and the story closes with them raw and bleeding.