poster_500x735_220x320On top of winning Best Film at Venice Days and winning 6 Ophir Awards, including Best Film and Director, Bethlehem has recently been selected to represent Israel in the Foreign Language category at the 2013 Academy Awards. This tense political thriller, co-written by Ali Waked – an Arab journalist who spent years in the West Bank and built this screenplay from his research – and Yuval Adler (who directs his debut feature), depicts the increasingly tense relationship between a Shin Bet investigator and his young Palestinian informant and will likely generate some divisive word of mouth when it screens at the Jewish International Film Festival (Sydney, 30 October – 17 November). Interestingly, representing Palestine for Best Foreign Language Film is Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar, which covers very similar themes - the Israeli Secret Service attempt to recruit a desperate young Palestinian man, imprisoned following the murder of an Israeli soldier, as an informant.

At the core of Bethlehem, set within the Palestinian governed city, is the relationship between Razi (Tsahi Halevi, charismatic) and Sanfur (Sahdi Marei), which extends beyond that of officer and informant and has become almost like a father and son bond. Razi recruited Sanfur when he was just fifteen, and he has been a figure of comfort and support when Sanfur has sought it. His own father has more interest in his other son Ibrahim, a senior Palestinian militant with the al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade.

When Razi turns his attention to Ibrahim, confirmed as responsible for a suicide bombing on King George Street, Jerusalem, he finds himself at odds with his superiors who wish to use Sanfur as bait. Sanfur has to make a decision. Who is he more loyal to? Razi has to evaluate how much he respects his boss and trusts Sanfur. Within this unpredictable and violent conflict there are some powerful moments as these two men individually deal with mounting pressure. Further developments lead to the fraying relationships and the potential outing of the collaboration.

We see that these militant groups – the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade and the Hamas – are in the pockets of the upper Palestinian authorities, and are rivals themselves. When Ibrahim’s underlings learn that he had been making dealings with the Hamas, and that Sanfur has played a role, tensions begin to brew within the eager-for-action group, who begin to question Sanfur’s motives and behaviour. This adds another layer to the film, but one of the film’s problems is the thin covering of such territory.

At times harrowing (the finale is a jaw-dropper) this engaging, strongly performed thriller is a gritty and unglorified document of the claustrophobic streets, where everyone carries a gun with them, and the inner-workings of this specific regional conflict. Marei gives Sanfur a tough façade, but in his eyes we can see he is broken down and bitterly torn. Razi’s compassion for his informant is ultimately his weakness, but he is a man we care for throughout. There is a sense of urgency conveyed by the hand-held photography and the energetic cutting, and a realism created through the use of natural locations. When the Israeli SS pursue Ibrahim through a market and into a civilian dwelling, the chase and standoff is tense and well handled, and as we watch the traps enveloping Sanfur and Razi, whom are each playing a dangerous game, we fear for both of them.

The complex, fraying relationships at the core of Bethlehem, and the authentic insider look at both the agendas of the militant revolutionaries and the procedures of the Israeli secret service, make it a grim experience, but one certainly worth considering. 

Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22

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Andy Buckle is a passionate Sydney-based film enthusiast and reviewer who has built a respected online voice at his personal blog, The Film Emporium. Andy will contribute reviews, features and be our resident film festival, and awards expert.