Bethlehem: Venice Review

Double agents and divided loyalties in the Middle East.

Israeli debutant director Yuval Adler finds tragic personal drama among the murderous power players of his troubled homeland.

Set on both sides of the fiercely contested border between Israel and Palestine, this punchy espionage thriller aims to compress the most entrenched conflict in the Middle East into a tense personal drama of trust and betrayal, inevitably sacrificing subtlety and complexity in the process. Following its world premiere on the Lido today, the film also screens at Toronto next month.

Bethlehem is the debut feature by the Israeli writer-director Yuval Adler, who holds a PhD in philosophy from Columbia University and once studied acting at New York’s famous Lee Strasberg Theater School. Co-written by Palestinian journalist Ali Waked, it is a modestly gripping but thumpingly earnest affair that lacks the stylistic originality or emotional depth of other recent crossover films addressing this rich subject -- notably Waltz With Bashir and Paradise Now. The depressingly newsworthy theme should secure further festival bookings, but distribution deals in foreign markets will be a tougher sell.

Sullen screen novice Shadi Mar’i plays Sanfur, the hot-headed Palestinian teenager at the heart of the story. Overshadowed by his older brother, a notorious militant and local hero, Sanfur’s bruised pride makes him a natural target for Israel’s Shin Bet security service. Smooth-talking intelligence agent Razi (Tsahi Halevy) has spent years grooming this vulnerable young man as an informant, establishing a fatherly bond that cuts across their divided loyalties. But Sanfur’s clandestine collaboration amounts to a slow-motion betrayal of his brother Ibrahim (Hisham Suliman), who is wanted for orchestrating suicide bombings inside Israel. After inadvertently bringing tragedy to his family, Sanfur feels shamed and abused by both sides, and lashes out accordingly.

Strip away the Middle East backdrop and Bethlehem is a fairly routine thriller about good cops, corrupt bureaucrats and armed criminal gangs. Framed as a fast-moving police procedural, it offers very little political or cultural context on the background conflict. Adler and his team insist they are telling an even-handed human story, but their sympathies clearly lie more with Israel. Every single Palestinian character is a vengeful killer, a back-stabbing terrorist or a crooked official handing out European aid money to his cronies. By contrast, the Israeli agents are ruthless pragmatists but also fiercely principled. Indeed, Razi’s chief flaw is his protective empathy towards Sanfur, which leads both of them into danger.

No script is ever truly objective, of course, and filmmakers are entitled to adopt any political position they choose. But Bethlehem limits its potential audience by reducing the intricate shadings of Israel-Palestine to broad caricatures and heavy-handed melodrama. Even the most neutral overseas viewers who are curious about the ideological divisions between Hamas, al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades and the Palestinian Authority will find little to enlighten them here.

That said, Adler does give us a strong visual sense of Israel’s biblical landscape, with its stony deserts and parched valleys. He also mounts an impressively kinetic shoot-out sequence that does not flinch from the visceral, street-level horror of the conflict. Bethlehem is not a knockout debut, but it was clearly made by a confident new talent in Middle Eastern cinema.

Production companies: Entre Chien et Loup, Gringo Films, Pie Films

Producers: Talia Kleinhandler, Osnat Handelsman-Keren, Diana Elbaum, Sebastian Delloye, Steve Hudson, Sonja Ewers

Starring: Shadi Mar’i, Tsahi Halevy, Sahdi Marei, Hitham Omari, Hisham Suliman

Director: Yuval Adler

Writers: Yuval Adler, Ali Waked

Cinematography: Yaron Scharf

Editor: Ron Omer

Music: Ishai Adar

Sales company: West End Films

Rated 14A, 100 minutes