Bethlehem

****

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The never-ending cycle…

Bethlehem

The H-Bomb:  17-year-old Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i) is a Palestinian living in the ancient city of Bethlehem whose older brother, Ibrahim (Slmnham), is a wanted terrorist responsible for a deadly bombing in Jerusalem.  Sanfur has been living in his brother’s shadow his entire life, and he’s been constantly trying to prove his manhood by pulling such stunts as wearing a flak vest and having his friends shoot him with an AK-47.  As Sanfur grows older, he gets the attention of Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades leader, Badawi (Hitham Omari), who is currently in a power struggle with the Palestinian Authority, and who sees real potential in the young man.

However, there is something about Sanfur that neither Badawi, or Ibrahim, or anyone else in his family or circle of friends know… that he is an informant for the Israelis.  Recruited at the age of fifteen, he regularly feeds information to Israeli Intelligence Agent, Razi (Tsahi Halevi), who has bonded with him, earned his trust, and has become more of a big brother to him than his actual brother.  What Razi hasn’t told Sanfur, is that the man he is currently hunting is Ibrahim, and that he is closing in on him very quickly.

If Ibrahim is eliminated, the Al-Aqsa Brigades, as well as Sanfur, will surely want retribution.  What if Sanfur discovers that Razi is indeed tracking his brother, and what if Badawi, or some other member of Al-Aqsa, finds out that Sanfur is collaborating with the Israelis?  It seems inevitable that the poor lad will be forced into a lose-lose position as his double life starts to catch up to him.

Israel-Palestine, Palestine-Israel… what a lovely little cluster-fuck.  The fact that this conflict has been going on for the better part of seven decades now, and shows no signs of stopping at any point in the foreseeable future, makes pretty much any movie brave enough to tackle this topic timely.  But what makes a film like Bethlehem relevant is that, unlike Steven Spielberg’s excellent Munich, it was made by people who have actually lived this conflict.  Making his feature film debut, Israeli director Yuval Adler, and his co-screenwriter, Arab reporter Ali Waked, imbue the film with the kind of authenticity that can only come from first hand experience.

While merely a political thriller on the surface, Bethlehem ultimately tells an all-too-human tale about a young man born into a situation where the prospects for his future are rather bleak, and who is constantly being manipulated by everyone around him.  By his father, who constantly reminds him what a disappointment he is next to his brother, by Badawi, who aims to make Sanfur a protege and, ultimately, a martyr, and by Razi, who does genuinely care for Sanfur, but demands that he betray his people.

Adler seamlessly weaves these humanistic elements in with the intrigue, giving the events that unfold a real emotional impact.  We’re made to care about Sanfur, we’re made to care about Razi.  Not as Israelis or Palestinians, but as people.  Even the terrorist leader, Badawi, while never coming off as sympathetic (at least not to me), does come off as a man who truly believes in his cause, and that what he is doing is right and necessary, instead of simply being a dastardly evil doer who does evil things because that’s what dastardly evil doers do.

The actors, all of whom are amateurs, also bring a strong sense of realism to their characters.  That these are first time actors is surprising, particularly in the case of Halevi and Mar’i, who deliver layered performances conveying the inner struggles of the two protagonists; Halevi is commanding as the man who has to balance the duties of defending his country with the father-like responsibility he feels for Sanfur, with whom he has clearly grown more attached to than he should have, and the young Mar’i, who does an exceptional job of showing the torn loyalties he feels.

Amateur actors displaying such a level of complexity is quite impressive.  Although, perhaps their level of complexity shouldn’t be so surprising, since, again, these are people who have lived in this unenviable situation their entire lives, on both sides of the divide.  Perhaps it all comes naturally to them, as that old saying goes, they aren’t acting so much as they’re simply being.  Either way, color me impressed.

With a gritty, rough-around-the-edges look to the cinematography that adds to its overall believability, Bethlehem sets its two protagonists down a destructive path of no return that can only end tragically for both of them.  It’s with this intimate human tragedy that the film, with sober-eyed clarity, encapsulates the larger tragedy of the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Exciting and moving in equal parts, Bethlehem is an exceedingly smart, riveting thriller that doesn’t possess all the answers, but that does ask all the right questions.

 


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