“Bethlehem, the debut feature from Yuval Adler, commits an unusual gaffe for a thriller,” finds the Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin: “the story it tells is less exciting than the one behind its creation. Adler is an Israeli Jew who has served in military intelligence; his co-writer, Ali Waked, is a Muslim journalist and activist whose patch includes Gaza and Ramallah. Together the two men interviewed Palestinian militants and officers in the Israel Security Agency in order to piece together this account of the relationship between a mid-ranking Secret Service official and his teenage Palestinian informant. What Adler discovered, and what his film shows beyond doubt, is that the most effective weapon in the extraction of information is not violence or bribery, but friendship.”
“The uncanny similarity between the story lines of Yuval Adler’s debut feature and Hani Abu Assad’s Omar, unveiled earlier this year in Cannes, is bound to raise quite a few eyebrows among the followers of the Middle East conflict representation in movies,” writes Dan Fainaru for Screen Daily. “Using an almost identical plot, but developing its details from different angles, the two films conclude on the same despairing note, underlining once again the hopelessness of the confrontation they deal with.”
“Sullen screen novice Shadi Mar’i plays Sanfur, the hot-headed Palestinian teenager at the heart of the story,” elaborates Stephen Dalton in the Hollywood Reporter. “Overshadowed by his older brother, a notorious militant and local hero, Sanfur’s bruised pride makes him a natural target for Israel’s Shin Bet security service. Smooth-talking intelligence agent Razi (Tsahi Halevy) has spent years grooming this vulnerable young man as an informer, establishing a fatherly bond that cuts across their divided loyalties. But Sanfur’s clandestine collaboration amounts to a slow-motion betrayal of his brother Ibrahim (Hisham Suliman), who is wanted for orchestrating suicide bombings inside Israel. After inadvertently bringing tragedy on his family, Sanfur feels shamed and abused by both sides, lashing out accordingly. Strip away the Middle East backdrop and Bethlehem is a fairly routine thriller about good cops, corrupt bureaucrats and armed criminal gangs.”
“Adler clearly has chops as a filmmaker,” writes Oliver Lyttelton at the Playlist. “The strains of what presumably wasn’t a giant budget show occasionally, feeling like it would be suited better to the small screen than the large. But in one set piece in particular, as Ibrahim flees Razi and his men, leading to a brutal and bloody siege in the home of an innocent family, Adler shows his stuff: the razor-sharp cutting and canny handling of tension are reminiscent of Kathryn Bigelow, and there aren’t many higher compliments that could be paid for this kind of thing.” Still, “the film has a tendency to wander. What promises to be a taut and emotionally-charged thriller often takes the back seat to in-fighting among the Palestinian resistance in the wake of a power vacuum. Potentially fascinating? Absolutely, but Adler spreads himself a little too thin, and so the result is that the attention is divided without adding much to the whole.”
Updates, 9/1: Bethlehem is “a tightly wound clock-ticking thriller,” writes Leslie Felperin for Variety. “From the co-orbiting bodies of Sanfur and Razi, the pic’s focus expands to encompass a whole solar system of interlocking characters, including Ibrahim’s ambitious, duplicitous lieutenant Badawi (Hitham Omari, a news cameraman in real life, and arguably the film’s most impressive non-pro discovery); manipulative Palestinian Authority politician Abu Mussa (Karem Shakur); and Razi’s co-workers Levi (Yossi Eini) and Maya (Efrat Shnap), among many others. Suicide bombers strike, interference from Hamas muddies the waters between the Palestinian factions, and Razi struggles to protect Sanfur’s life even as he exploits his trust while the pic’s crammed 99-minute running time sprints by, leaving a comet trail of sharply cut suspense and chase sequences.”
Update, 9/2: “Bethlehem suffers to some degree by its similarities to the expertly paced Omar,” finds Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn. “On its own terms, however, Bethlehem—which won 12 Israeli Oscars ahead of its North American festival play—is a powerful debut that strips away the politics of its scenario to get at the emotional conundrums beneath.”
Update, 9/14: “There’s an action sequence,” notes Jay Kuehner in Cinema Scope, “in which Ibrahim is tracked and cornered into a nasty gunfight that shows off Adler’s knack for kinetic warfare on a street level, while being insightfully detailed in its exposition of political haranguing among Hamas and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, who ironically compete for corpses felled in the cause…. Bethlehem is compelling for its regional exposure, but a tendency for narrative velocity and plot machinations (otherwise known as a thriller) gives away the film’s ultimate agenda as genre-dependent, regardless of site-specificity. Credit to Adler though for the necessarily unhappy ending.”
Update, 9/27: Adopt Films has acquired all U.S. rights, reports Indiewire.
2013 Indexes: Venice, Telluride, and Toronto. For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow @KeyframeDaily on Twitter and/or the RSS feed. Get Keyframe Daily in your inbox by signing in at fandor.com/daily.