For Christians (practicing or lapsed) in the West, Bethlehem inevitably calls to mind a peaceful image of Baby Jesus lying in the manger. One can easily forget that the “little town” of Christmas-carol lore is currently part of the Palestinian territories, having served as a major combat zone during the Second Intifada. For a powerful reminder, it’s hard to beat Bethlehem, the impressively grim debut feature by Israeli director Yuval Adler, who co-wrote the screenplay with Palestinian journalist Ali Waked. (Collaborations between Israeli and Palestinian filmmakers are becoming increasingly common—one of the more hopeful signs from the region.) Superficially similar to Hany Abu-Assad’s Oscar-nominated Omar, it’s a considerably more complex and nuanced examination of the conflicted loyalties and dangerous relationships that characterize daily life in the Middle East, featuring remarkably strong, charismatic performances by a host of mostly non-professional actors. It’s also the rare movie that feels too short.
There’s certainly plenty of ground to cover. Initially, Bethlehem appears to be a simple two-hander, focused squarely on Razi (Tsahi Halevi), an Israeli intelligence officer working out of Jerusalem, and Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i), one of his primary informants in Bethlehem. Sanfur’s older brother, Ibrahim (Hisham Suliman), runs the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade (a real-life terrorist coalition), and Sanfur, as part of a deal that sprung his father from prison, has been feeding Razi information for roughly two years, while also helping his brother plan attacks. In the wake of the latest suicide bombing, however, things suddenly come to a head, and the film’s narrative gradually expands to include Ibrahim’s ruthless lieutenant, Badawi (Hitham Omari); Razi’s boss, Levy (Yossi Eini), who correctly suspects that Razi has become emotionally involved with Sanfur and is protecting him even at the risk of blowing operations; and various other factions, each with their own agendas. When al-Aqsa discovers what Sanfur has been up to, things get truly ugly.
As a director, Adler sometimes seems as if he’d be more comfortable working in television—Bethlehem has a generic, purely functional look, and its narrative, while consistently intelligent and compelling, feels as if it’s been compressed from several episodes of a first-rate drama series. (The surrogate father-son relationship between Razi and Sanfur, upon which the climax depends, is given short shrift.) His work with actors, however, is little short of miraculous. Omari’s day job is as a news cameraman, for example, but he commands the screen with a relaxed, authoritative presence that could see Hollywood come calling. Consequently, every detail of this world convinces, which makes the bleakness on view pretty bracing. Good intentions count for very little here, and sentimentality is liable to get you killed—as is a lack of sentimentality, for that matter, or just being in the general area. Given the way Bethlehem abruptly ends, it could just as well have re-used the title of another recent movie: There Will Be Blood.