Trying to make sense of the modern day Israeli/Palestinian conflict is a lot like attempting to put together a 1000 piece puzzle blindfolded. Needless to say, they’re both incredibly hard to do. That’s what makes Yuval Adler’s feature film debut so amazing. This year’s official Foreign Language Oscar submission for Israel is at first a pulse-pounding thriller. Yet, at its core, “Bethlehem” is one of the most easily digestible presentations of current Palestine/Israel politics I have ever seen. Take that CNN and Fox News! The result is an amazingly deep film that can be enjoyed by not only people close to the action, but even Americans—like me—that are completely removed from the dilemma.
“Bethlehem” tells the story of a Palestinian teen named Sanfur (Sahdi Mar’i) who, at the age of 15, is recruited as an informant by Shin Bet, the Israeli Secret Service. Sanfur is an asset because his older brother is one of the most highly sought after militants on the Shin Bet wanted list, and if there is any chance of his capture, it will be because of the boy. While the fraternal bond between brothers is strong, the relationship he has with his Israeli recruiting officer, Razi (Tsahi Halevi) is just as tough. Yet while Sanfur struggles to live up to his brother’s prominence in his community, the boy finds that living this double life is threatening to unravel. Identities and loyalties continue to blur after Razi calls in a task force that ends up killing Sanfur’s brother. With guilt, anger, and revenge all bubbling to the surface, the teenager makes a rash decision that will forever change not only his life, but the lives of everyone he is close to.
First time director Yuval Adler—who worked in the intelligence sector of the Israeli army before becoming a filmmaker—along with writing partner Ali Waked—a Muslim journalist—do an excellent job presenting an unbiased look at this deeply convoluted dilemma. On the Palestinian side, we spend the entire movie looking at the subject matter through Sanfur’s perspective. We feel for him after the Israeli army breaks a whole through his home for “military” reasons. Sanfur’s family is fully fleshed out as well. After his brother ‘s bloody body returns home for burial, the utter depression and sense of futility Sanfur’s father conjures is heartbreaking.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Razi is just as human of a character. He has a wife. He has a daughter. And he is shown being kind and generous to both of them. He isn’t a villain. He’s just an adult doing his job.
Stars Sahdi Mar’I and Tsahi Halevi provide two harrowing performances. Both actors are first-timers; yet command the screen as if they had been acting for their entire lives. Mar’l, in particular, plays Sanfur with maturity and grace not found in most teens of his age. There is such desperation and misery in his eyes, however his actions always speak the contrary. This concept is put on display after he, along with a few of his friends, find an old bulletproof vest. Acting the part, Sahdi boldly straps on the crumbling vest, and shouts to his friends to shoot him. In the world they live in, almost every Palestinian teen has a gun. This power—power most Americans of that age are not afforded—is a giant undertaking, although their immaturity still comes to the forefront when they decide to pull pranks like this. These boys are exactly that…boys. While Sahbi thinks otherwise, he is nonetheless too young to fully understand the full situation unfolding around him.
The audience, just like Sahbi, is constantly forced to second guess and redefine their original opinions on the story world. Characters that appear to be positive influences end up being nothing but trouble. Terrorist groups essentially made up of thugs and murders become loving safe havens for wayward youths without anywhere else to turn. All the while, Adler and Waked maintain a journalistic distance from the subject matter. They present everything as if it were a documentary.
“Bethlehem,” however, is definitely not a documentary. It is a hardboiled thriller that might just have one of the most depressing albeit poetic final scenes I have ever seen in cinema. Adler proves himself a more than capable filmmaker, and I would not be surprised if his beautiful first feature makes it all the way to the Academy Awards.
“Bethlehem” premiered during the AFI Fest in Hollywood California on November 9th as part of the World Cinema section of the festival. It was screened to a completely sold out crowd and was shown again on Monday, November 11th at 1 PM at the Egyptian Theater. For tickets, head to afifest.afi.com.
AFI FEST presented by Audi is a celebration of global cinema and today’s Hollywood – a showcase for the best festival films of the year and an opportunity for master filmmakers and emerging artists to come together with audiences in the movie capital of the world. AFI FEST is the only festival of its stature that is free to the public.
By David Morris