'Bethlehem' Hits High Notes but Fails to Transcend Entertainment Value

Plot, direction, cast are all superb, but the feature film focuses on entertainment, personal drama without challenging audience to confront dilemmas of West Bank rule.

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“Well made” is the adjective that best fits the movie “Bethlehem.” Last Friday, Yuval Adler’s first feature-length film opened the Israeli Film Competition, part of the 29th Haifa Film Festival, which started the day before. The film will be screened in movie theaters throughout the country beginning on Thursday.

“Bethlehem” is well written (screenplay by Adler and Ali Waked), skillfully shot (by cinematographer Yaron Scharf), smoothly edited (by Ron Omer) and finely, perhaps even more than finely, presented by its cast. I was previously unfamiliar with all of the actors and actresses and it is always a distinct pleasure to discover new and impressive faces on an Israeli movie screen. The merits of “Bethlehem” are many, it is a fascinating film to watch from start to finish, it sweeps up its viewers with immense power and it attests to the arrival of another talented Israeli filmmaker, whose next film I am anxiously looking forward to see. Nonetheless, it is possible that in the very description “well made” lies the reason for my reservations concerning “Bethlehem” and the answer to the question why, despite its notable merits, it stops short of being a truly great film.

“Bethlehem” deals with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and right away I appreciate any Israeli film that touches on this subject, which, generally speaking, does not elicit too much sympathy from Israeli filmgoers. This movie is infinitely better than recent Israeli films dealing with this issue, such as “Rock Ba’Casba” (“Rock the Casbah,” 2012) and “Alata” (“Out in the Dark,” 2012). There is a certain degree of sentimentality in Adler’s film and this is characteristic of most Israeli films in which the conflict plays a prominent role. “Bethlehem” also displays a measure of ideological, narrative and emotional manipulation; nonetheless, the sentimentality and manipulation are so wonderfully, even subtly, woven into the fabric of the film that we become more aware of it after the film is over.

Palestinian informant and Shin Bet agent

Adler and Waked have chosen to deal with the conflict through a dramatically and emotionally charged character: Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i), a 17-year-old Palestinian informant from Bethlehem whose eldest brother, Ibrahim, is the commander of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade in that city. Sanfur’s father is very proud of Ibrahim and has little respect for Sanfur, who is recruited as an informant by Razi (Tsahi Halevi), a Shin Bet security service agent. The true reason for Sanfur’s readiness to collaborate with the Shin Bet is revealed only later in the movie; however, from the very start of “Bethlehem,” it is clear, thanks to Mar’i’s precise portrayal of this character, that Sanfur is the product of the complex reality in which he lives. Moreover, he is a youth who yearns to belong: He is searching for warmth and love, and all of the forces and characters in the film exploit his powerful need for their own purposes. They drown Sanfur in constantly expanding circles of exploitation, lies and betrayals; for his part, this sensitive, hurt adolescent is both aware and unaware of the existence of these circles. The manner in which he reacts to them and utilizes them for his own purposes drives the film’s plot.

In the character of Sanfur, Adler and Waked have created the complex and touching figure of a teenager in distress who is also meant to symbolize the ugly, corrupting aspects of the conflict on both sides. His story and his plight are intended to accumulate tragic mass, and the necessary factors are present in the film. “Bethlehem” does sometimes touch upon those factors; however, in order to enable Sanfur’s story to attain its full cinematic expression, there is the need for a filmmaker with a richer vision than what Adler has at this stage in his career – someone like Robert Bresson, Jean-Pierre Melville, the Dardenne brothers or perhaps even Pier Paolo Pasolini. All of these filmmakers had – and, in the case of the Dardenne brothers, still have – the talent and ability to use the private story of a character as a launch pad for soaring to broad, touching and poetic human statements.

“Bethlehem” recounts a tale; it is a good tale and the recounting is well done. The film consists of a chain of fine scenes that are skillfully directed, but “Bethlehem” does not move beyond the point of film that recounts a tale that supplies polished, perfected cinematic entertainment. Its statements on the bitter reality of the occupation are too smoothly interwoven into the plot and thus the film is unable to truly challenge the audience. In fact, “Bethlehem” could even be described as a gangster film that takes place against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and whose central protagonist is an emotionally tormented adolescent boy. From the dramatic and emotional standpoints, the film is effective; however, as I watching “Bethlehem,” I could not help but wish that the film could have been more than that.

Lacks transcendent statement

The film does display a certain degree of severity and dry objectivity. It strives for objectivity in its attempt to create in the minds of its viewers some measure of identification with both protagonists - Sanfur, the Palestinian youth, and Razi, who cultivates him and gives him the feeling that this Shin Bet agent really cares about him, even feels emotionally connected with him. However, at the heart of this objectivity, which is admittedly powerful, lies an attempt to avoid coming out with a statement that can transcend the boundaries of this story. This is a smart film that smoothly orchestrates the various narrative and emotional forms, yet forms are no more than that, and they prevent “Bethlehem” from reaching that additional level which, had it been reached, would make this one of the finest, most meaningful cinematic creations that have been produced in Israel in recent years.

Adler has created a popular movie that deals with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In certain respects, “Bethlehem” reminds me of the last popular Israeli film to deal with the conflict, Uri Barbash’s “Me’ahorei Hasoragim” (“Beyond the Walls,” 1984), which was a box-office success. I do not know whether “Bethlehem” will also do well at the box office; however, the path that Adler and Waked have chosen is perhaps the most likely to reach the hearts of Israeli filmgoers. I would be very happy if the film turns out to be a box-office success because it is a local cinematic creation that should be seen. It supplies the audience with a powerful cinematic experience; however, in addition to offering that experience, will “Bethlehem” prove to be an important milestone in the history of the presentation of the occupation in Israeli cinema? I have my doubts.

Tsahi Halevi, as Shin Bet agent Razi in film "Bethlehem."Credit: Vered Adir

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