AFI Fest: Bethlehem (★★★½)

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Sure to be among the five films in the running for next year’s “Best Foreign Language Film” Oscar®, Yuval Adler’s brutal yet undeniably important Bethlehem gives its two cents on the Israeli-Palestian conflict and doesn’t leave anyone shortchanged. Instead of overly politicizing and making general arguments we’ve heard from both sides time and again, Adler provides us with empathetic characters whose victimization leaves us stunned, confused, and ultimately horrified. The solution to peace might be a simple meeting of minds away, but the web of distrust is so tangled that it affects every crevasse of human life on the West Bank, from opportunistic politician to innocent child. Bethlehem is primarily about being stuck in the crossfire of this age-old war, unable to escape or bring about change, not even when kindness is presented to you from someone you never expected to show any. As dark and disturbing as this story is, Bethlehem is essential viewing for all. It doesn’t so much blatantly attack or criticize as it does heavily reveal. The images and events shown are meant to shock, passionately trying to stir up some sort of reaction that could lead to therapeutic self-reflection from both Israel and its Palestinian neighbors. In other words, in order to understand your enemy’s “evilness,” you must first come to terms with your own.

Bethlehem operates a bit like Zero Dark Thirty — it’s a procedural-thriller of sorts, permeated with unending tension and maximum stress for all players involved. The film also shares Bigalow’s tight directorial style of being down-to-the-bone detailed and realistic. The characters, the words they speak, and the situations they find themselves in seem totally plausible within this contemporary “Israeli vs. Palestian” framework. What Adler has created with Bethlehem is a commercial film that could stand alongside any Hollywood political thriller, except with a deeper sense of self and purpose.

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Bethlehem centers around the relationship formed between a teenage Palestinian informant, Sanfur (Shhadi Maryee), and his Shin Bet (Israel’s version of the NSA) handler, Razi (Tsahi Halevi). Over the past two years, the two have formed a kind of father-son bond that becomes almost unbreakable…that is until Sanfur is betrayed by Shin Bet in the cruelest of ways. Sanfur is being torn by two opposing sides. His conscience knows deep down that Razi cares for him, not to mention that Razi is as much a victim of Shin Bet’s manipulations as Sanfur is. But his friendship with Razi matters little when the cost of defecting to the enemy means death at the hands of his own people. Worse beyond that is the unbearable shame Sanfur would carry for disgracing his family, who had no say whatsoever in the choices he made concerning their fates.

What makes Bethlehem so groundbreaking is the moral dilemmas faced by Razi and Sanfur extend to other characters in the film. For example, Sanfur’s strict, loyalist father (Tarik Kopty) is tested at every turn, unsure of which to put first: his dedication to his son or his deference to his fellow Palestinians. Even the local gang leader of the Palestinian freedom fighters in Bethlehem, Badawai (Hitham Omari), has trouble abiding by his “one strike, you’re dead” rule. The film’s superb script gives dimension and complexity to every major character in Bethlehem, allowing the non-professional actors to sink their teeth into roles so palpably “human” that consequently their performances never feel anything less than factual. I’m going to go one step further: Bethlehem has arguably the best ensemble of 2013.

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Perhaps the only thing holding back Bethlehem from a perfect score is the lack of crucial context. For instance, a flashback sequence of Sanfur and Riza meeting for the first time would have solidified our understanding of their tight connection. Another gripe I have is that Bethlehem’s female characters aren’t given much to do other than pester or make observations about the actions made by the men in their lives. I suppose this is Adler’s way of showing us how women are marginalized all throughout the Middle East, but I’m not sure his subtle editorial will be interpreted this way by people watching the film.

All in all, Bethlehem is sure to spark some much needed dialogue between those who are most in need of peace talks. Like The Gatekeepers, Bethlehem is Israel’s way of copping to the fact that they are by no means an innocent country. The film fully acknowledges that there is still a ton of room for growth, but thankfully doesn’t contain an overriding agenda that would devalue the persuasiveness of its narrative. Exceptionally acted, masterfully directed, and strikingly realistic, Bethlehem will rouse your emotions and leave you breathless. The film’s final shot alone is one you won’t be able to shake off for weeks, possibly years.

Israel’s Bethlehem had its U.S. premiere at AFI Fest last night as part of the festival’s “World Cinema” program. Adopt Films will be handling the U.S. distribution, with a release date to be announced.

Check out the trailer below: