Movie Review - Bethlehem

Tsahi Halevi (left) and Shadi Mar'i
in "Bethlehem"
This film was Israel's official submission to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. It didn't get the nomination. It's about a young Palestinian who becomes an informant for the Israeli Secret Service that's rooting out terrorists. Ironically, another film that is literally about the same thing was also submitted to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. That other movie did get the nomination. Except, it came from Palestine.

In real life, Israel and Palestine are engaged in a bloody conflict. Both countries submit films about the same thing. The film from Palestine named Omar got the nomination, giving it the presumption that it's the better of the two. Yet, this film from Israel is in my opinion actually the better movie. It was up for twelve Ophir Awards, which are Israel's equivalent to the Oscars. It won six Ophir Awards, including Best Screenplay, Best Director and Best Film.

Shadi Mar'i who was nominated for the Ophir for Best Actor stars as Sanfur, a young Palestinian that is not like your average young American. He lives in a war zone. Learning how to shoot a machine gun as well as how to wear a bullet-proof vest are a rite of passage. While children of American hunters might learn to shoot a rifle or other gun, none would never need to learn the ins and outs of a bullet-proof vest.

Tsahi Halevi who won the Ophir for Best Supporting Actor co-stars as Razi, an Israeli Secret Service agent, an equivalent to a CIA officer. He brings Sanfur into his confidence and becomes a father figure to Sanfur, helping him and being there for him to talk about things.

What is learned is that Razi's interest in Sanfur is because Sanfur is the younger brother to Ibrahim al-Masri, played by Simnham. Ibrahim is the leader of an anti-semitic, terrorist group that has organized bombings, but Ibrahim is in hiding. Razi's bosses want him to use Sanfur to draw out or get to Ibrahim.

The question is how much Razi wants to use Sanfur and how much danger that would put the both of them. What writers Yuval Adler and Ali Wakad greatly do is develop the relationship, and the stakes each faces. What Hany Abu-Assad's Omar fails to do is exactly that. Instead, Omar focuses on the love story between the titular character and his girlfriend that a firm sense of what's happening around them is lost.

Strangely, both this film and Omar end the same. The difference is the impact of that ending is felt more strongly in this film than in the previous. Director Yuval Adler lingers on the moment longer than Hany Abu-Assad because of which. It's obvious that the audience needs it in order to absorb that impact.

Adler also stages in the middle of this movie a sequence that I'm referring to as the "Zero Dark Thirty" sequence. The reason is because the sequence is very reminiscent of the final action sequence in Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty (2012). Yet, Adler is able to accomplish what Bigelow did in less time as well as have it be just as, if not more, meaningful.

The supporting cast is so terrific. There are two actors here who stand out as they get strong or surprising moments. The first is Yossi Eini who plays Levi, the boss of Razi who is the Sal equivalent from Showtime's Homeland. The second is Hitham Omari who plays Badawi, the leader of the terrorist group who takes over when Ibrahim goes away. Both are well-written and very well-performed as being catalysts that push, while at the same time, pull the two main characters.

Five Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but for mature audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 40 mins.


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