Bethlehem (Adopt Films, NR)

bethlehem 75The city of Bethlehem is treated primarily as the backdrop for an events-heavy plot enacted by a cast of largely paper-thin characters.

 

bethlehem film

Bethlehem, Israel’s 2014 submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, is a police procedural set in the contemporary city from which it takes its title. That combination of fictional form and real-world setting is both the strength and the weakness of this film. While director Yuval Adler (who also co-wrote the script with Ali Wakad, a Palestinian) has a firm grasp of the conventions of the police procedural, the city of Bethlehem is treated primarily as the backdrop for an events-heavy plot enacted by a cast of largely paper-thin characters. The result is a film that feels more like it belongs on television than in the theater—but who knows? Maybe Bethlehem will spawn a series that can be The Wire of the Middle East, one that will take the time to really explore the relationships among the different power groups involved in this story, and let us see them as people making rational responses to the choices offered them. That type of humanization is largely missing in Bethlehem, and it makes the film seem both abrupt and overly long.

The principal characters in Bethlehem are a Shin Bet agent, Razi (Tsahi Halevi), and a Palestinian teenage informant, Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i), whom Razi has been cultivating for several years because Sanfur’s older brother is a known terrorist (bearing in mind, of course, that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter). Sanfur’s motivation seems to be a combination of teenage angst (nobody has time for him at home), a genuine valuation of Razi’s friendship and guidance, and a desire for money to buy things like designer jeans. While it’s easy to say that none of those rewards should be sufficient to cause one to betray one’s own family, it’s also true that Razi is taking advantage of Sanfur’s dead-end life and his youthful inability (or lack of inclination) to think through the consequences of his actions.

The strongest scenes in Bethlehem are those between Razi and Sanfur, because they both come across as living characters rather than puppets necessary to let the plot run its course. Adler really goes the extra mile with Razi, giving us numerous humanizing scenes of him with his wife and children, a courtesy he grants to none of the Palestinian characters. Razi also has momentary doubts about whether exploiting Sanfur is the right thing to do, but they’re just that—momentary—and don’t prevent him from going on about his business. The other Israeli characters are portrayed as having no doubts whatsoever concerning their actions, but at least they’re loyal to each other, unlike the Palestinians who are shown as constantly quarreling when they’re not being outright corrupt.

Because most of the characterizations are so shallow, it’s hard to care too much about what happens to whom, so the action scenes become merely mechanical (and action itself can never create tension; you have to care about the outcome, as well). I suspect that the American audience for this film will already be familiar with the region in question, and thus will know what characters mean when they talk about, say, “Beit Sahour” or “Al-Aqsa.” If not, the story becomes even more generic, and the specific points of disagreement among the Palestinians in particular even more confusing.

Despite these criticisms, it’s hard to turn down the chance to see a film shot in a part of the world most of us will never see, and in particular to enjoy a script that seems intensely grounded in the reality of Israeli police work (the latter exactly what you expect of a police procedural). Bethlehem is Adler’s first film, and as such, it suggests that he has a promising future as a director, even if he fell a bit short of the mark here. | Sarah Boslaugh

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