By Eric Kohn | Indiewire September 1, 2013 at 9:27PM
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is fertile ground for stories of daily life interrupted by wartime discord, but only recently has cinema from the region succeeded at exploring the humanity on both sides of the border. Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad's "Paradise Now" and recent Cannes entry "Omar" both effectively delve into the plights of would-be suicide bombers, with the latter also delving into the capacity for Israeli intelligence to rely on Palestinian informants. First-time Israeli director Yuval Adler's "Bethlehem" suffers to some degree by its similarities to the expertly paced "Omar," as it also revolves around a conflicted young Palestinian man dragged into an Israeli intelligence scheme against his will. On its own terms, however, "Bethlehem" -- which won 12 Israeli Oscars ahead of its North American festival play -- is a powerful debut that strips away the politics of its scenario to get at the emotional conundrums beneath.
At its start, tough-faced teenager Sanfur (Shadi Mar’I) has already been passing along intelligence to slick Israeli agent Orbach (Tsahi Halevi) for some time, though he shows no eagerness over his cooperation. With the reason behind Sanfur being an informant kept a secret for most of the running time, "Bethlehem" foregrounds his challenging life ahead of the espionage details. Codenamed "Esau" by Orbach, Sanfur oscillates between begrudging the agent's role in his life and leaning on him for clandestine assistance.
In one particularly revealing scene, reckless gunplay with his friends leads Sanfur to suffer from an injury he dare not reveal to his stern, judgmental father (Tarik Kopty, whom some viewers may recall from "The Band's Visit"); fleeing to an Israeli hospital, he calls the agent for assistance. Orbach seems to assume a paternal role, although it's unclear whether he's exclusively dealing with the Palestinian to serve an agenda or if he actually cares for his safety. Either way, their terse exchanges are riddled with an ambiguity echoed on both of their faces.
"Why do you hang out with those losers?" Orbach asks. His condescension gets to the root of Sanfur's internal struggle: Despite some of the resentment he feels for the Bethlehem community that regards him as an outcast, they're his family. Most crucially, Sanfur's brother Ibrahim (Hisham Suliman) heads the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, putting him in the Israelis' crosshairs. Living in his successful brother's shadow, Sanfur suffers from a typical strand of teen angst, though the stakes are significantly higher than usual.
Adler competently keeps this central drama taut by routinely contrasting Sanfur's interactions with the agents and his discerning relatives, but the fragile dynamic is impressively realized mainly by the talented cast. Mar’I delivers a potent embodiment of his character's hesitations and slow-burning rage, while stern father Kopty takes a traditional character type and walks a nuanced line between harshness and empathy in a handful of scenes. Halevi, as the agent, personifies a tantalizing enigma: Charismatic and cunning, he makes it hard to tell when he's being sincere -- and equally difficult to discern if he should be pegged as the story's antagonist or Sanfur's potential savior.
The suspense kicks into high gear with a superbly tense showdown between Israeli soldiers and a militant fighter on the lam, but it's the aftermath of this incursion when the stakes really start to rise. As other jihadists grow wary of Sanfur's antics and the original reason for his status as an informant becomes clear, "Bethlehem" veers toward an inevitably dark outcome. Adhering to a fairly straightforward set of twists, the general story feels distinctly heavy-handed in the tensions it showcases. However, the grim finale provides a powerful cap to the morally ambiguous scenario.
Not as precisely rooted in the ideologies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as other films of its type, "Bethlehem" is ostensibly apolitical and rooted in personal grievances. By keeping the polemical chatter to a minimum, it's a disconcerting look at a battle that many of its fighters can't recall why they're fighting in the first place.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Screening at Telluride ahead of the Toronto International Film Festival, "Bethlehem" seems likely to gain support from Middle Eastern festivals and land a minor deal with a U.S. distributor able to tap into that niche with a very limited release.