Venice has welcomed Israeli films into its line up many times over the last few years: tank-bound war film “Lebanon” was a Golden Lion-winner a few years back, and last year saw “Fill The Void” become something of a crowd-pleaser at the festival. “ Bethlehem,” the feature directorial debut of filmmaker Yuval Adler might have started a little more under the radar than those films: it’s in the Venice Days sidebar, rather than the main competition as its predecessors were. But thanks to a promising trailer, and appearances in both the TIFF and Telluride line-ups, the film’s certainly been the center of plenty of talk in the last few weeks.
Delving more directly into the Israel/Palestine conflict than many have dared in the last few years, the film centers most directly on a pair of protagonists: Razi (Tsahi Halevi), an officer in Shin Bet (the military intelligence wing of the Israeli army), and Sanfur (Sahdi Marei), a teenage Palestinian who serves as one of Razi’s infomants. The intelligence officer gets info on potential suicide bombings, as Sanfur is the younger brother of wanted militant Ibrahim (Hisham Suliman), while the boy gets a surrogate father much more caring and loving than his real one. But the relationship is put to the test when the net closes in on Ibrahim, something which potentially risks outing Sanfur as a rat.
The director—a Columbia grad making his first feature here—was in the military intelligence himself at one point, and it shows: there’s a meticulous level of detail throughout, both on the Israeli and Palestinian side of the equation, with real insight into how the intelligence world works in the Middle East. And with the film being co-written with a Muslim journalist, Ali Waked, it’s reasonably fair and balanced too, with both leads shown as decent people who sometimes makes bad decisions, often in the face of pressure from above. The best material in the film comes from their scenes together, and it suffers somewhat as a result when they’re estranged in the second half.
Adler clearly has chops as a filmmaker, too, on a technical level. 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.
That said, while he’s more than capable of pulling off striking scenes, Adler’s handle on storytelling in a broader sense isn’t yet fully developed. While the script is strong on the details, it also falls victim to a tell-don’t-show approach. Too often, crucial plot moments are glossed over in favor of a less interesting scene where you’re left to assume what’s taken place in the meantime. While we’re all for not treating the audience like children and over-explaining everything, it sometimes feels like the best material has been left off camera, and that a longer cut exists that might feel more satisfying (the film only runs a lean 90 minutes or so, and it’s hard not to feel that depth has been sacrificed for brevity).
Perhaps more importantly, as 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.
Still, the cast, particularly the charismatic Halevi, are very strong—Marei is perhaps so authentically sullen that it’s hard to warm to him, but it’s certainly a good turn. And one suspects that with stronger material and a bigger budget, Adler could pull off something truly impressive. As it is, it’s a strong and eye-catching debut, but one that doesn’t quite mark its ground as the next big thing in Israeli cinema. [B-]