Set amongst the detritus of a complicated conflict in the West Bank, Bethlehem unearths some humanity from the ruins. The Israel and Palestine dissension acts as the backdrop for a story showcasing a tempestuous cop-informant relationship. Though the bond they share bridges the gap between rivalling political alliances, Bethlehem explores the consequences of competing loyalties and broken trust in a clandestine relationship.
Yuval Adler makes a grand directorial debut in his film Bethlehem, cleverly avoiding any attempt to try to make sense of the hostility that continues to pervade the West Bank. While it is an Israeli film, Adler succeeds in maintaining an unbiased depiction of the conflict. It is the detachment from the politics that allows for a deeper insight into the relationship between the Israeli cop and his teenage Palestinian informant. The true beauty of the film is the attention it pays to human frailty and flaws, and the palpable connection between two individuals with conflicting political, cultural and religious identities.
The film opens with a group of teenage boys recklessly playing with rifles and trying on bulletproof vests – items they’ve obviously stolen or found amongst the rubble. They share a wanton lust for destruction, and Adler makes it clear that the influence of war is not lost on them. One of the boys, Sanfur (Shadi Mari’i), lives in Bethlehem and works as a bus boy. Unbeknownst to his family and friends, Sanfur has been an informant for the Israeli police force, and has been working closely with one Israeli agent, Razi (Tsahi Halevi), since he was fifteen. Sanfur is described as an “asset” for Razi as he is the brother of Ibrahim (Hisham Suliman), a key member of Palestinian terrorist group, al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades.
Accepting bribes and providing information to Razi has become a facet of Sanfur’s daily life. But it is clear that their bond oversteps the bounds of cop-informant relationship, and is in many ways akin to a father-son dynamic. Razi counsels Sanfur, imploring him to stay away from ‘loser’ friends, provides him with safety and comes to his aid when he is hurt. In many ways, Razi is the only person Sanfur can count on. But with Ibrahim in hiding after claiming responsibility for a bombing in Jerusalem that killed 30 Jews, Razi faces burgeoning pressure from his superiors to extract information from Sanfur. In a complicated web of lies and deceit, Adler expertly showcases the lengths one will go to in order to protect, and the significance of loyalties to family, state and friends. Pressure builds for Razi with colleagues questioning his own loyalty and placing demands on Sanfur – demands that ultimately place in abeyance his trusting relationship with the teenager.
Though staying on track with the different allegiances within various Palestinian reactionary groups can be challenging at times, the film clearly depicts the corruption inherent in warfare. When the storyline digresses from the relationship between Razi and Sanfur for too long it does run the risk of detracting from the overall potency and pace. But this is overcome by the strength of their connection shown in subsequent scenes. Some of the most powerful sequences are due to the sparse script and restrained screenplay, sometimes meaning neither Sanfur nor Razi say anything at all. Rather, the story is told through the subtle gestures of intimacy they share, like when Sanfur playfully nudges Razi’s shoulder while sitting on a street curb. These moments both cement their paternal relationship at the same time as further complicating their competing loyalties. The authenticity of this film is in many ways indebted to the brilliant performances by the two main actors. It is also important to give mention to Hisham Suliman who plays Sanfur’s brother, Ibrahim for giving a similarly outstanding performance.
Another feat of Bethlehem is its skill of portraying combat. Adler’s action sequences are both gripping and well-paced. Even as a viewer who seldom enjoys high-action scenes, Bethlehem manages to shoot and edit them in such a way that is exciting and believable. I was literally on the edge of my seat.
Though the storyline in Bethlehem is enmeshed within a war, the focus is not so much on the conflict between states as it is between the individuals. More specifically, the true merit of the film is showcasing the tumultuous conflict individuals can have with themselves. One’s ability to make the right decision in a high-pressure situation is placed under scrutiny. Bethlehem is a heartfelt and cutting example of the perils of war, and how it can not only damage the individual, but also sabotage the relationships that they hold most dear.