"Sanfur" (Shadi Mar'i) is a Palestinian teen living on the West Bank. He comes from a prominent family and his older brother is a well-known terrorist. Unbeknownst to them, Sanfur is also supplying information to "Razi" (Tsahi Halevi), a Shabak officer in the Israeli Secret Service (aka Shin Bet).
After years of interactions, a deep bond has grown between Sanfur and Razi. As Razi tells his superior "Levy" (Yossi Eini): "I spend more time with this kid than I spend with my own family." But as Sanfur edges closer to manhood, he has to put on more of a show for his buddies, and Levy begins to question Razi's ability to control the situation.
The most charismatic character in Bethlehem is a Bedouin named "Badawi" (Haitham Omari). Short of both cash and connections, Badawi is filled to the brim with verbal bravado and sheer physical courage. This makes Badawi a magnet for the boys, and just as much of a problem for Palestinian politicians as he is for Shabak officers.
Bethlehem received 11 Ophir Award nominations from the Israel Film Academy in 2013, and it won in 6 categories including Best Picture, which immediately made it Israel's Oscar candidate for Best Foreign Language Film in 2014. But even though it succeeds well enough as a "police procedural," with lots of chase scenes and Hollywood-style action, I found Bethlehem woefully thin. Director Yuval Adler and his co-writer Ali Wakad seem to have put all their energy on the Palestinian side. They never convinced me that Razi had a life outside their screenplay, and all the other Israeli characters, including Levy and Razi's wife "Einat" (Michal Shtemler), were even more schematic.
Ironically, AMPAS (the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences) did not select Bethlehem as one of the five finalists for Best Foreign Language Film, but they did select Omar which is almost its mirror image. Both films are set in the West Bank, both films focus on the relationship between a Shabak officer and his teenage Palestinian informant, and both films even use some of the same actors in minor roles. (For example, Tarek Copti plays Sanfur's father in Bethlehem, and he plays the father of Omar's girlfriend in Omar).
Last year, two films,5 Broken Cameras and The Gatekeepers, faced off in the Best Documentary category. To me this indicates the power movies have over what many people in the world think they know about the Arab/Israeli conflict. So I urge you to see these films too so you can answer any questions which might come your way.
Click here to read my full review of Bethlehem, which will open locally on 3/7/14 at the Landmark Century in Lincoln Park and the Landmark Renaissance in Highland Park.
Click here to read my full review of Omar, which opened locally on 2/21/14 and is still playing at the Landmark Century in Lincoln Park and the Landmark Renaissance in Highland Park.
Click here to read my reviews of 5 Broken Cameras and The Gatekeepers (two of last year's Oscar candidates in the Best Documentary category).
Click here for screening times and additional information on the Landmark Theatre website
Top Photo: Sahdi Mar'i as "Sanfur" and Tsahi Halevi as "Razi."
Photo Credit: Vered Adir courtesy of Adopt Films.