Movie Review

A gripping thriller exposes unsettling Israeli-Palestinian truths

Opening in Israel this weekend, ‘Bethlehem’ does not flinch from powerful and tragic realities

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Razi, left, and Sanfur, played by Tsahi Halevy and Shadi Mar'i (Photo credit: Vered Adir/ Courtesy)
Razi, left, and Sanfur, played by Tsahi Halevy and Shadi Mar'i (Photo credit: Vered Adir/ Courtesy)

In “Bethlehem,” a movie that starts with the crack of a rifle and never slows down, Yuval Adler and Ali Waked — a visual artist and a former journalist — have created an intelligent and excruciating thriller, one that sweeps away the usual platitudes and unearths a landscape of unsettling truths on both sides of the broken line that separates Israelis and Palestinians.

The movie begins with Shadi Mar’i, who plays a character named Sanfur, or “dwarf.” Like most of the other actors in the film, he is an amateur; like nearly all of them, he excels. 

In the throes of adolescence, Sanfur, with soft feminine lips, is younger brother to Ibrahim (Hisham Suliman), the most wanted man in Bethlehem. He goes largely unnoticed by his father and unappreciated by his friends, but is doted on by one person — Razi, played by Tsahi Halevi, the Shin Bet officer in charge of the city.

Halevi, a singer-songwriter with no prior screen acting experience, has soulful, powerful eyes, which serve as Razi’s primary tool and weapon. Look at me, he commands Sanfur when he senses his evasiveness; look at me, he instructs a family that may be hiding Sanfur’s brother, Ibrahim: “Do I look like a soldier to you?”

The malice in that line lingers: soldiers carry guns and can kill, but Razi has far greater powers. As commander of the Bethlehem region, he must keep his grip firmly around the neck of the city, cultivating sources and coaxing information, ruthlessly alternating between the carrot and the stick. A word from him can seal the fate of an entire family. A burst of compassion can lead to the deaths of innocents. It’s a terrible, fascinating job, and Adler, directing a full-length feature film for the first time, is masterful in bringing the complexity to the surface.

At the Venice Film Festival, from left: Hitham Omari, Yuval Adler, Tsahi Halevy and Shadi Mar'i (Photo credit: Moris Puccio/ Courtesy)
At the Venice Film Festival, from left: Haitham Omari, Yuval Adler, Tsahi Halevi and Shadi Mar’i (Photo credit: Moris Puccio/ Courtesy)

Razi, unlike the intelligence operatives in so many American films, never touches a computer and chases no one in a car. He acts fatherly toward Sanfur, and is devoted to the human element of his job — attempting to recruit a young Arab man while watching the elephants at the Jerusalem zoo with his family, and an elderly Arab man while playing backgammon during a stint of hospital convalescence.

Other husbands hit on chicks, his wife snorts, as she drags him away from the elephant compound.

On the Palestinian side, the scope is wider. Ali Waked, a veteran Palestinian affairs correspondent for Ynet news and an Arab citizen of Israel who lives in Jaffa, co-wrote the screenplay and punctuated it with scenes that are funny, insightful and scathing. Often all at once.

It is hard not to smile and cringe at the same time when a high-ranking Palestinian Authority official offers one Fatah gunman a job as adviser for women’s affairs, including plentiful EU funds, and later reminds another gunman, Badawi, a Bedouin, of his place on the Palestinian social ladder by telling him he is the son of a man who recently “learned to wear shoes.” (Haitham Omari, a photographer for the Al-Arabiya network, is terrific as Badawi, Ibrahim’s second in command.)

Hitham Omari as Badawi, questioning an unseen Sanfur (Photo credit: Vered Adir/ Courtesy)
Hitham Omari as Badawi, questioning an unseen Sanfur (Photo credit: Vered Adir/ Courtesy)

There is a ludicrously grim scene depicting a battle for credit between Hamas and Fatah, and a tellingly absurd one in which armed Palestinian gunmen cluster around a phone and ask an Israeli reporter whether one of their kin has been killed.

The only misstep comes during an 18-minute army raid. This includes a terrific moment of desperation — animated by the thump of a hammer against a thin concrete wall — but at times lacks the frantic, terrifying chaos of battle, particularly in the body language of the soldiers, which was so well captured in Tylor Hicks’ photography from inside the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi this week.

As a whole, though, the film, acridly reminiscent of the Second Intifada, elegantly hinges on a single miscalculation on Razi’s part, and Adler, a PhD in philosophy from Columbia University and an accomplished sculptor and plastic artist, does not flinch. He slams the door shut in Sophoclean form, leaving the audience with what the Greeks called catharsis and what felt, in the quiet darkness of the theater, like a mix of awe and revulsion.

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