Bethlehem: Israel as Hamster-Wheel

02/26/2014 4:00 AM |

Directed by Yuval Adler

The Israel of Bethlehem is a hamster wheel of a world: everyone keeps running as fast as they can, trying to protect the people they love, but nobody ever makes any progress. It’s also one big, hugely dysfunctional family, a place where everyone—Jews, Arabs and Bedouins—is intimately connected to everyone else, for better or (more often) much, much worse. Even Razi (Tsahi Halevy), an Israeli Shin Bet officer, is like a father to his main informant, Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i), a young Palestinian hothead who looks like an Arabic Michael Cera and acts like Al Pacino in Scent of A Woman, shouting every line. But the intimacy and affection—even love—that bind the two only make trouble, as Sanfur reacts with the rage of a wounded teenager when he thinks Razi has betrayed and abandoned him.

Trust is a luxury almost no one can afford. Razi’s boss turns on him after he disobeys an order so he can protect Sanfur, and two factions are constantly warring in Bethlehem to control the Palestinian territory. The two groups even fight over Sanfur’s brother’s corpse, each eager to claim Ibrahim as their martyr. Director Yuval Adler, an Israeli Jew who has served in military intelligence, cowrote the script with Ali Waked, a Palestinian journalist. Perhaps as a result, some scenes—like the messy scramble by Razi and his colleagues to kill Ibrahim as he hides out in a Palestinian home, and the stone-throwing mob that makes it nearly impossible for the agents to leave after they have completed their mission—have a chaotic energy that feels almost documentary.

But the mood that lingers after the credits roll is grief over the seemingly unbridgeable gulf that has grown between Arabs and Jews in Israel—a gulf personified by Razi and Sanfur. These two likable people love one another, but the paranoid, ethnicity-obsessed world they had the bad luck to be born into leaves them no choice in the end but to be mortal enemies.

Opens March 7