It's far too easy - and lazy - to look at Israeli director Yuval Adler's debut, Bethlehem, as "the other side" of Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad's underwhelming Omar. Far too easy but somewhat unavoidable, since, despite the films' different origins, their story and approach are pretty much the same, focussing as they both do on a Palestinian youngster treading a tight rope between two equally dangerous sides. But where Omar viewed it from the (Palestinian) point of view of Omar, the young man whose fateful decision to join the fighting leaves him literally stranded in no man's land, Bethlehem hovers between both sides of the border. On one hand, Sanfur (Shadi Mar'i), the impulsive, volatile teenage brother of a Bethlehem resistance hotshot, who has turned informant for the Israelis; on the other, Razi (Tsahi Halevy), his Israeli handler, stuck between his job to manipulate Sanfur to get vital information and the affection he has grown to have for a kid he knows better than his own children.
As Omar, Bethlehem explores key issues of trust and truth, and asks if it is at all possible for it to exist in such a complex environment. It invokes more openly, however, a genre film tradition; and its assurance, both formal and narrative, suggests Mr. Adler was going for a Michael Mann-ish "moral thriller", where the no-nonsense straight-forward narrative is given an added layer of doubt and questioning (some have compared it, exaggerating but not entirely off the mark, to the Internal Affairs trilogy). That the director doesn't quite pull it off is clearly a matter of experience and models, as Bethlehem still has too much of a TV procedural feel, rather than a big-screen proposition. But it is also because the larger political issues surrounding it would daunt anyone attempting to set a story in modern day Palestine, and they can't help but contaminate the way you look at the film even before you've seen it.
Very clearly, though, Mr. Adler is not necessarily picking sides and the decision to anchor his story on the relationship between agent and handler gives it more of a genre dimension. In effect, Razi is a surrogate father for Sanfur, who, with an absent older brother and an ineffectual father, lacks an understanding role model at a key point in his growing-up, and the Israeli is so acutely aware of it he becomes very reluctant to betray so openly the confidence the boy places in him. Bethlehem thus suggests a look at role models and father figures in a society where an-eye-for-an-eye violence is the rule and where traditional concepts of good and evil no longer apply, within the confines of a modern thriller framework, before being engulfed by the urgency of the situation it tells of and running the risk of becoming yet another "issues movie".
Israel, Belgium, Germany 2012
Cast Shadi Mar'i, Tsahi Halevy, Hitham Omari
Director Yuval Adler; screenwriters Mr. Adler and Ali Wakad; cinematographer Yaron Scharf (colour); composer Ishai Adar; art director Yoav Sinai; costumes Li Alembik; editor Ron Omer; producers Osnat Handelsman-Keren, Talia Kleinhendler, Sébastien Delloye, Diana Elbaum. Benoît Roland, Steve Hudson and Sonja Ewers; production companies Pie Films in co-production with Entre Chien et Loup and Gringo Films
Screened July 24th 2014, Cinema City Alvalade 3, Lisbon (distributor press screening)