Bethlehem is the latest film I’ve seen portraying the complicated relationship between the Israeli Secret Service and their young Palestinian informants. Torn between loyalty and self-preservation, these young men walk along a precipice between two worlds in a desperate conflict that, perhaps ironically, neither side is capable of winning without the other. While Bethlehem is reminiscent of others in the same ilk (notably Omar), there is a rawness to the film that tears through the cinematic gaze straight into reality.
The Palestinian informant, Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i) is also the brother of a very influential terrorist leader, Ibrahim. While Sanfur does his brother’s bidding, which usually entails picking up money from Hamas to fund Ibrahim’s attacks, he is also in contact with Razi (Tsahi Halevi) a member of the Israeli Secret Service. Through his connection, Razi is able to get to Ibrahim after a long year of searching, but not without serious consequences to his relationship with the young Sanfur.
The relationship between Ravi and Sanfur is an interesting one, albeit one we’ve seen before, but I give credit to writer/director Yuval Adler for showing us more of what these relationships mean to both sides. At first, Razi is unaware about the connection between Sanfur and Ibrahim, a fact that his superiors give him grief for when he does find out that they are brothers. But instead of coerce Sanfur into revealing his brother, Razi subtly manipulates him into making decisions that will organically bring Ibrahim out of hiding without revealing Sanfur’s betrayal to the various Palestinian groups. It is an act to protect Sanfur, while at the same time preserving a very advantageous relationship. Razi sees Sanfur as a son, but on the surface it’s unclear what Sanfur gets out of the deal besides a possibly quicker death sentence. It’s only later that we learn Sanfur’s place in the hierarchy of different Palestinian groups, and suffice it to say, without Ibrahim, Sanfur does not garner much enthusiasm from others. Razi provides that sense of trust and importance in him, and similar to Razi’s motives, Sanfur tries to manipulate Razi in order to better his circumstances which become more dire as rumors of his treachery spread.
I was also drawn to the discussion of martyrdom that is prevalent throughout the film. When a prominent figure is killed, who has the right to claim ownership of his memory and message? Of his body? When there are multiple political and militant groups vying for control over the populace, how do the dead offer themselves as symbols to the living? There is a very visceral sequence in this film that spoke to the complexity of these questions, and the difficult answers. Unlike typical grandiose displays of patriotism, this scene strips away the cinematic veneer and places the audience in real time and the effects are chilling.
Bethlehem is a film with familiar themes but is primarily interested in invoking discussion with the audience. These relationships are difficult to get across onscreen with any degree of meaningful complexity but this film succeeds in showing us what is becoming a rather iconic tragic duo in the history of Middle Eastern film.
Bethlehem opens today at the Ritz Bourse.
Arabic and Hebrew with English subtitles.