While the John Kerry-led Middle East peace talks are ongoing, there has been a small wave of recent films on the state of Israeli-Palestinian relations. The common theme is the failure of the status quo, in which Israeli intelligence and military attempt to monitor, police and punish a hostile, factionalized Palestinian population.
Bethlehem, the debut film from Israel’s Yuval Adler, who co-wrote the script with Palestinian journalist Ali Waked, arrives in theatres a little over a month after Omar, a Palestinian feature that also explored the relationship between an Israeli agent and a teenaged informer. Both films were released shortly after Sundance Film Festival audiences gave Nadav Schirman’s The Green Prince the world documentary award, for the story of the son of a Hamas founder who worked as an Israeli informant.
Bethlehem is distinguished by its emphasis on the brotherly intimacy between an Israeli intelligence agent, Razi (Tsahi Halevi), a young husband and father; and the troubled Bethlehem-based teen who is his most important “asset,” a friend in the enemy Palestinian camp. Rather than forcing or tricking his informant, Razi offers psychological support and friendship.
The informant, Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i), is the younger brother and courier for a targeted militia leader, Ibrahim (Hisham Suliman), who orchestrates suicide bombing against Israeli civilians. Overshadowed by his heroic older brother, Sanfur is insecure and desperate to prove his manhood. Razi offers him not only money, but also sympathy and prestige he doesn’t get from his own community.
Bethlehem’s plot is nothing new; it’s the oft-told Cain and Abel story updated for the age of suicide bombers and tactical strikes, as a tautly structured mix of melodrama and ticking-clock thriller. Each character is placed at the centre of a network of family, co-workers and political interests.
This web of loyalties can become bewildering complex, particularly on the Palestinian side. After suicide bombers strike, it becomes clear that Ibrahim, a leader in the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, is secretly receiving money from rival group Hamas. The revelation upsets both the Palestinian Authority and Israeli intelligence. Because Sanfur should have given this information to Razi, it casts suspicion on the agent’s competence.
At the same time, Sanfur faces new risks from Ibrahim’s second-in-command, the ruthless and cunning Badawi (a stand-out Hitham Omari, who in real life is a news camera man). Badawi swaggers around the West Bank with his gang, machine guns strapped across their backs.
With so many players, Bethlehem doesn’t have too much time for psychological nuance, and Razi and Sanfur’s brief sympathetic scenes stand in contrast to a succession of macho, paranoid confrontations, brusque phone calls and chaotic chases, between pauses for breath and plot exposition.
The film occasionally breaks out with memorably sharp action sequences. One involves a group of Israeli agents attempting to find and kill a Palestinian target hiding in a house, while angry Palestinians begin massing. Another is a surreal standoff in a morgue between rival Palestinian factions, each determined to claim the corpse of a martyr while the dead man’s family wails and prays around them.
These set pieces, which emerge from a complex social and political panorama, suggest Bethlehem might have worked better as a long-form television series, such as The Wire or Homeland (which originated as an Israeli TV show). As a story about a war that is unresolved, it seems better suited to a provisional “To be continued” than the certainty of “The end.”