Judge Michael Nazarewycz wonders how 'omerta' translates to Hebrew and Arabic.
When you are playing both sides, who do you trust?
Last year, I had the privilege to review for this site the 2012 Ophir Award-winner for Best Film, the sublime Fill the Void. This year provides me with the chance to review the 2013 "Israeli Oscar" Best Film winner.
Facts of the Case
Razi (Tsahi Halevi) is an Israeli Secret Service agent whose primary "asset" is Palestinian teen informant Sanfur (Shadi Mar'i). Sanfur happens to be the younger brother of Ibrahim (Hisham Suliman), a leader in the Palestinian terrorist group al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades. When Ibrahim takes credit for a suicide bombing in Jerusalem and then goes into hiding, the pressure is on for Razi to leverage his relationship with Sanfur so that the Israelis can kill Ibrahim. But Razi and Sanfur are closer than just agent and asset, which complicates matters. The involvement of Hamas complicates matters more.
The best decision first-time writer/director Yuval Adler makes with Bethlehem is that he uses the politics of the region as a framework for a more compelling procedural tale. The history of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is long and complex and far too meaty to take on in the context of the other things that are going on in the film. The political undercurrent drives character motivation, but it never stifles the story. There are some brief political references concerning cease-fire decisions, and there are moves at a local level that are somewhat politically motivated, but that's the only time a second toe is dipped in political waters.
The procedural aspect of the film is great to watch. For most Western viewers, this is a world we only understand from the high level information our nightly news provides us. Throughout the course of the film, Adler and cowriter Ali Wakad offer detailed insight not only into how informants are used by authorities, but how the day-to-day operations of smaller groups within larger terrorist organizations operate and react to situations. It gives it something of a mob movie feel, with ground-level views of warring factions, themes of loyalty and trust, and spikes of violence (albeit with far more significant consequences, both within the context of the story and as a fictionalized representation of what goes on in the real world).
With politics providing the backdrop to the taut X's-and-O's execution of a very dangerous daily life, Adler doubles-down and weaves into the story its best parts: the character relationships (again inviting thoughts of American crime movies).
On the Israeli side of the story, the relationships are almost exclusively business. The primary relationship here involves Razi and his boss, and his boss' dwindling trust in him when it comes to using Sanfur, particularly as they close-in on Ibrahim. Razi also has a female partner (for lack of a better term) but she has little critical play. On the personal front, there are a few scenes with Razi's wife, and these are mostly afterthoughts until one exchange near the end of the film that lets you know how devoted to Sanfur Razi is.
On the Palestinian side of the story, though, are intricate and complicated relationships, and they are equally balanced between personal and business—and some of those lines blur. There are the relationships between Sanfur and his father and between Sanfur and his brother, as well as between the father and the brother outside of Sanfur. None of these are unimportant. Outside of the family come dealings, double-dealings, and double-crosses (in one case to the death) of members of the formal Palestinian authority, the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, and Hamas, as well as Ibrahim, Sanfur, and their father. Again, I cannot stress enough how much of this film is structured like a mob movie—a very good mob movie.
But the most critical relationship is between Razi and Sanfur. These two have been working together for over two years, every since Sanfur was 15, and they have developed a close personal bond. This has served Razi well as an agent, but now he finds himself (willingly) too close, and he winds up having to manage his professional relationships in such a way that deflects attention away from the paternal role he has taken in the boy's life. Everyone else in the Secret Service office sees Razi only as an asset—something to be used—whereas Razi sees him as so much more.
What makes the relationship integral to the story from a technical perspective is that it gives Adler smooth transition points between the two worlds, and he balances those worlds, and their inner-workings, like a veteran filmmaker.
And then, smack dab in the middle of this taut drama with its rich layers, Adler drops in a terrific action set-piece with the Israeli Secret Service staking out and pursuing the elusive Ibrahim. The scene begins in the streets and continues in someone's home, and Adler manages it all so greatly. This isn't just chase-and-catch; the Israeli forces are not welcome in the the neighborhood and dozens of men let them know. This hostile environment puts a clock on their operation because as the crowd grows, the greater peril the authorities will find themselves in. Plus, when the random family whose house becomes a surprise makeshift shelter for Ibrahim doesn't cooperate with the Israelis, the force knows how to exert influence on the family. It isn't the most intense action sequence you'll watch, but it is fascinating in the context of the overall film.
By the end of Bethlehem, you just might find your rooting interests split. And as for the conclusion, you might not like it, but it certainly is satisfying and not very Hollywood at all. This is a good thing.
Most of the actors in the film are appearing on camera for the first time and everyone does a fine job. The standout performance, though, comes from first-timer Halevi, as Razi. His is by far the most complex character in the group, a man who is trying to manage a lot of events and a lot of people in a lot of different directions. Halevi is always convincing and never overplays his hand. Mar'i as Sanfur is also notable (and another first-timer) as a teen struggling with right, wrong, and loyalty. The film falls apart without these two.
The anamorphic video transfer on the Bethlehem DVD is very good, and complements well the appropriately soft cinematography of Yaron Scharf; all images are clear and clean across all lighting levels. The Dolby Digital 2.1 audio track performs well, providing sharp dialogue (in a dialogue-heavy movie) and easily separating Yishai Adar's (Beaufort) subtle score. The film's primary action sequence, which is full of gunfire and yelling and chaos, is a little too much for the track to handle, but overall the sound on the disc is find. There are no extras.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For a film set in a tumultuous area of the world, there is very little action. Aside from that terrific action sequence and what occurs in its immediate wake, little else happens in the way of bombs or bullets. This isn't a bad thing, and the choice may have been just as much financial as it was artistic, but it is worth calling out.
According to IMDb, Yuval Adler has no projects in his pipeline and that's unfortunate. The rookie filmmaker has proven with Bethlehem that he has the touch to make several different types of films: drama, procedural, and action, and he could probably put together a pretty good political film too. So without any other films from him before and with nothing to look forward to in the future, enjoy this one. It's well-worth the watch.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Adopt Films
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