Directed by Yuval Adler
Bethlehem tells the story of the unlikely bond between Razi, an Israeli secret service officer, and his Palestinian informant Sanfur, the younger brother of a senior Palestinian militant. Razi recruited Sanfur when he was just 15, and developed a very close, almost fatherly relationship to him. Now 17, Sanfur tries to navigate between Razi’s demands and his loyalty to his brother, living a double life and lying to both men. Co-written by director Yuval Adler and Ali Waked—an Arab journalist who spent years in the West Bank—Bethlehem gives an unparalleled, moving and authentic portrait of the complex reality behind the news.
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★★★½ review by Dragonknight on Letterboxd
Watching this and Hanny Abu Assad’s Omar gives the viewer a panoramic and valuable view into one of the most brutal and most complex political conflicts of the modern history, Omar was a more or less melodramatic look into the seemingly endless clash between Israelis and Palestinians and here the Israeli director Yuval Adler narrates what is basically the same story by employing a more action based approach. Bethlehem is a compelling and extremely well-crafted thriller which powerfully portrays a world dominated by suspicion and paranoia full of unfortunate individuals trapped in a vicious cycle of violence and mistrust unable to form a normal relationship with each other which ultimately makes them isolated and emotionally devastated.
As a thriller Bethlehem is absolutely heart-stopping, Adler’s directing along with a neat editing and a hair-raising score (one of the best scores of the year without a doubt) successfully bring that menacing atmosphere of the film to life (Just look at the scene where IDF forces are attacking the house of the Palestinian militant, just pure adrenaline). Soon we find ourselves in a world where it is totally impossible to trust anyone, it doesn't matter if you’re a Shin Bet agent or a Palestinian teenager who is informing on his own people, this world is not going to offer you calmness and peace. One of the main strengths of the film is that this ever-present danger is perfectly portrayed which makes the whole thing even more spine-chilling.
But Adler’s most impressive achievement is that he never categorizes his characters, no matter who they are and who they support, into good or bad, he doesn't criticize or support anyone. What he shows in Bethlehem is that the first thing which gets ruined in such a conflict is the pure emotions of human beings, the threatening circumstances make people do things which will ultimately haunt themselves, it successfully portrays a situation in which everyone’s a loser. The final shot of the film masterfully sums up what Adler tries to say: this path will lead to more desperation, despair and anger. So unlike Omar which ends quite gloriously this one ends in the most disheartening way possible and that is the biggest reason that I liked this more that Abu Assad’s film.
The actors (most of them unprofessionals) are all brilliant in their roles, specially Tsahi Halevi who gives the film’s most powerful and sympathetic performance. He gives us a character who is wrestling with his feelings as all the time there is an ongoing battle in his mind – and his heart - between his sense of duty and his emotions. Adler handles this paradoxical relationship between these two people – who are supposed to be enemies – with utter delicacy which further enriches his film.
Bethlehem is a solid and powerful debut from Yuval Adler which smartly dissects one of the most intricate political issues of our time and the kind of film that everyone needs to see.
★★★½ review by Jonathan White on Letterboxd
After loving Omar, the Palestinian entry for best foreign film at the 2014 Oscars, and one my wife and I caught at TIFF, I was looking forward to Israel’s entry in the same race. I was rather surprised that the stories shared a common thread; a young Palestinian as an asset of the Israel police. One of the things I liked about Omar, and director Hany Abu-Assad’s previous film, Paradise Now, was how despite having a distinctively Palestinian viewpoint, it didn’t vilify the Israelis, but rather remained remarkably balanced.
I was a bit worried in the opening scenes that maybe Bethlehem might not be as balanced; the police seeming to be cast in a light of reasonability, and the Palestinians less favourably lit. Specifically the focus on derision within the Arab community, where Bedouin origin is looked down upon. These worries melted away as the film unfolded, and the highlighting of the Israeli police care little about their assets other than their immediate value, and look down upon those who hold even a shred of sympathy.
I was amazed when I read up on the film afterwards that the entire cast were first time actors. There is a sense of authenticity that does reverberate here, much like it did with Omar. My only thought is that when you’re exposed to this type of conflict year after year, you don’t really need to act.
As an actioner, Bethlemem does a fair job of keeping your attention. I do find it rather ironic that this is a film, like Omar, is probably aimed at foreign audiences who can be thrilled and appalled by the real-life action. I’m not so sure Israeli’s or Palestinian’s really want to see their real life problems played out when they try to escape by watching movies.
★★★½ review by Mike D'Angelo on Letterboxd
A.V. Club review. Same basic film as Omar, only good.
★★★½ review by Steven Sheehan on Letterboxd
As the death toll increases in Palestine and the politicians sit around scared to come out and criticise Israel, this felt like an appropriate time to watch Israel's entry for this years Oscars. Similar to the Palestinian entry Omar, this is another story that revolves around the ongoing conflict between the two countries. Although the comparisons begin and end there.
The story is set between the two cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem, in doing so keeping the action split across both Palestinian and Israeli regions. Where once the films title would evoke images of a Biblical nature, it now reflects a point in the warring territories where the common occurrence of death overshadows any stories about a saviour being born.
Sanfur is a young brother sidelined at home by his father and a footnote to the exploits of his older brother, a terrorist on the run from the Israel authorities. His close relationship to Arabic speaking Israeli agent Razi appears to be the only close bond in his life. As the plot moves forward he becomes an important pawn in the movements for both sides in a series of political and personal deceptions that plague them all.
Director Yuval Adler collaborated with Arab journalist Ali Waked on his debut film and the result is story in which neither side of the divide are clear cut heroes or villains. The complicated relationship between Sanfur and Razi sits at the centre, focusing on the influential and confusing partnership that exists between agent and informer.
Violence permeates the air with almost every character in the film holding or being near a firearm. There isn't a false note made by any of actors all of whom are marking their first time in front of a camera. Whilst the film isn't a gritty, dirt-in-the-face affair - this is more polished than that - it does attempt to pull back the curtain in ways that other films haven't in the past. Adler wisely avoids over politicising or justifying anyone's actions, accepting that life sadly pans out this way for far too many.
Bethlehem isn't a game changer in terms of the subject matter it wants to tackle although it certainly doesn't deserve to keep being compared to Omar which is notably different. There will undoubtedly be more films to follow from the region attempting to bring the conflict to life onscreen. Sadly all we have to do is turn on the news and we can see for ourselves how unlikely it is that this will ever reach a resolution that suits both parties.
★★★½ review by Lise on Letterboxd
A somewhat intimate and compelling look at the inner workings of the Israeli spy machine, specifically an agent-informant relationship. What makes this particularly interesting is that the informant is a young teenager, selected and groomed when he was quite young. There are a few films raising questions about child-soldiers, but I've yet to see one involving child-informants. The obvious conflict ensues when the informant's more personal world butts up against the informants wishes. Bethlehem is well-made, avoiding melodramatic moments and held together by fantastic performances from both leads. Recommended.
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