Thursday saw the opening night of the 2014 Spokane Jewish Cultural Film Festival, a festival that typically screens some of the most interesting films of the year. The festival continues Saturday night at the Magic Lantern before concluding Sunday. Saturday's film, “Bethlehem,” is still haunting me a full week after having seen it. Following is an edited version of the review that I wrote for Spokane Pubic Radio:
One of the basic precepts of a classic action movie is the clear delineation between good and evil. More sophisticated filmmakers – even those who play to mainstream audiences – tend to blur the lines between heroes and villains. Overall, though, the essential white-hat/black-hat formula still applies.
So let’s make this abundantly clear: “Bethlehem,” which plays Saturday night at the Magic Lantern as part of the Spokane Jewish Cultural Film Festival, is no action film. Yes, people get shot, bludgeoned by rocks, tortured, and one dies in a grenade blast. The plot revolves around the search for a suicide bomber. One sequences involves an extended race through city streets at night. And a guy gets pushed to his death down a stairwell.
But this is no Jason Bourne adventure. It is, rather, an intense, powerful, even devastating look at the real-world life of spies and terror and the moral dilemmas that confront those who fight on both sides of a conflict where conduct is dictated as much by the survival principle as by simple pragmatism.
Set in the well-known biblical city, identified in the New Testament as the birthplace of Jesus, the film “Bethlehem” takes us to a place that – at least as seen by writer-director Yuval Adler and co-writer Ali Wakad – is a seething, tightly packed desert town, filled with corrupt politicians, gun-toting men, scarf-clad women and disaffected male youth aping the macho actions of their elders.
Adler follows three main characters: Razi is an operative for Shin Bet, Israel’s Security Service; Sanfur, a name that translates as “Smurf,” is a teenage Palestinian struggling to live in the shadow of his famous resistance-fighter older brother; Badawi is a confederate of Sanfur’s brother, a man striving to make his own mark in a world where power comes as much from lineage and connections as it does from the barrel of a gun.
These characters are engaged in realistic situations that we read about every day. But while moviegoers are bound to react to Adler’s film based on their own individual biases – it’s understandably hard to find common ground between any Israeli-Palestinian issue – Adler makes nothing about “Bethlehem” seem simple. Not plot, not character and particularly not character motivation. More so than most filmmakers, Adler and Wakad don’t tend to blur the lines between bad and good as erase them completely.
Razi, both a father and husband, is basically a decent man. He is ruthless, however, in how he recruits informers, and his actions may be as much for personal reasons as for state security. As he races to locate the afore-mentioned suicide bomber, he makes decisions regarding Sanfur that are questionable, even unprofessional. What’s worse, he lies about those decisions to his colleagues, to his wife – and possibly even to himself.
Much easier to figure out are Sanfur and Badawi. The latter’s single-minded struggle to achieve power is complicated by his Bedouin ethnicity, which makes him a rogue outsider to Palestine’s established leaders – and a dangerous rogue element. Sanfur, on the other hand, is a rootless boy, unable to keep a job, the loser younger sibling of a community hero, a man-child caught up in a world where respect is earned by innate toughness – and Sanfur, for all his teen bluster, is more Smurf than soldier. It’s easy to see, then, how easily Razi could manipulate him, even to the point of betraying his closest blood relatives.
In the end, notions of good and bad in “Bethlehem” seem secondary. Badawi, though he understands family honor, is tied to suicide bombers and capable of cold-blooded murder. Razi tries to protect Sanfur, though it’s never clear why, and his lies put his own people, as well as himself, in dire jeopardy. And while Sanfur, used by all, respected by none, may deserve sympathy, his inherent neediness, fueled by desperation, masks a deadly kind of rage that ultimately, ironically, plays out in what may be the year’s most shattering climax.
Whatever else you may end up thinking about “Bethlehem,” you’re not likely to forget it.