You can’t watch Bethlehem, a film that comes out Friday, without comparing it to Omar, which played in the Twin Cities only weeks ago. Both films are thrillers, for instance, and both follow young Palestinian men whose lives are torn apart after they’re forced to work as informants for Israeli intelligence. Bethlehem was Israel’s submission for Best Foreign Film, and Omar was Palestine’s. And while the latter got an Oscar nomination, it’s the former that’s the stronger, more nuanced look at a land divided.
Written by director Yuval Adler and Palestinian journalist Ali Waked, Bethlehem‘s story centers on a young man named Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i). He’s introduced to us doing something crazy. He’s got an old flak jacket on, and he’s telling a friend to shoot him with an AK-47. Why he would do such a stunt becomes obvious soon enough: He lives in the shadow of his older brother, an Israel’s-Most-Wanted-type terrorist, and he’s simultaneously working as an informant for the Israelis. He’s got to save face, to prove he’s strong, and that he’s brave as his reclusive brother.
The Israeli officer whom Sanfur reports to is Razi (Tsahi Halevi), who has, over the years, become something of a father figure to Sanfur. The agent is stern with the hot-tempered young man, but not cruel. After all, he has to keep his informant close, as his top proriority is to find Sanfur’s brother, the man behind a recent suicide bombing, in which Sanfur may have had a part. Yet, when the time to assassinate the terrorist comes, the agent tries to keep Sanfur safe from an Israeli assassination squad. And it doesn’t go unnoticed by Razi’s boss.
From here, things get a lot messier. Razi’s affinity for Sanfur (and speaking Arabic) makes his wife suspicious, and the agent starts straight-up lying to his boss. As for Sanfur, he finds himself looking for allies after his brother eventually falls, and getting pulled between various Palestinian factions — the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade (the terrorist group that his brother was a part), Hamas (with which his brother dealt) and corrupt Palestinian authorities. As those factions all quarrel, one leader among them appears most dangerous. His name is Badawi (Hitham Omari), and he was loyal to Sanfur’s older brother. And when he suspects that Sanfur had received help from the Israelis, Badawi sets in motion an ending where the only certainty is bloodshed.
This billiard game of colliding factions and priorities — and the messy fallout of each clash — is what makes Bethlehem a stronger film than Omar. In that movie, the agent-informant dynamic was nothing more than a superficial hero-villain struggle stuffed inside a tepid love story. While it was a polished thriller that wrapped up prettily, neither its politics nor romance packed a punch capable of knocking the wind from your lungs. Bethlehem, on the other hand, keeps in you enthralled because you’re on your toes, in the dark. Adler only tells you what you need to know, and since his direction clips along with the brevity of a Hemingway story, the result produces a feeling similar to watching someone walk a tight rope, blindfolded. This terse intensity then has the added effect of making Sanfur’s and Razi’s relationship more volatile and weirdly tender than any of those part of Omar’s weave.
Bethlehem is playing at the Edina Cinema.