Tsahi Halevi plays an Israel secret service officer dealing with a Palestinian informant (Shadi Mar'i) in "Bethlehem." Credit: Adopt Films
'Bethelehem' Director: Yuval Adler Stars: Tsahi Halevi, Shadi Mar'i Rating: NR 3 (out of 5) Globes
Film industries occasionally cough up dueling projects, such as the great insect animation war (“Antz” vs. “A Bug’s Life”) or the tussle between asteroid sagas (“Deep Impact” vs. “Armageddon”). Even less likely than the one between movies about Truman Capote writing “In Cold Blood” (“Capote” vs. “Infamous”), there’s the fight between films that soberly depict the Israeli-Palestinian situation, one from each side. The Palestinian “Omar,” which came out last month, and this month’s Israeli “Bethlehem” even boast the same story, tracing the increasingly volatile relationship between a secret service agent and a reluctant informant.
How do they fare? Both are flawed but solid dramas that calmly diagnose a powderkeg situation rather than push buttons, arguing for peace between both sides without pointing fingers. “Omar,” a recent Oscar nominee, is better directed, with assured long takes by an established talent, Hany Abu-Assad (“Paradise Now”). “Bethlehem” has the better, cleaner script, and the best performance of the two. Tsahi Halevi plays Razi, a brooding agent who long ago coerced young Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i), the brother of a noted revolutionary, into the informant field. When Razi’s superiors start cracking down, he has to find a way to save Sanfur, even if doing his job may finally radicalize him.
As Razi, Halevi oozes weary determination mixed with self-hatred. He’s adopted a paternal attitude towards his young charge, who is a flurry of undirected energy, sometimes focused on Palestine’s closest enemy. It’s tempting to see “Bethlehem” as too closely taking the Israeli side, depicting Palestinian rebels as a hotbed of fearsome, mafia-like organizations.
But it treads carefully. It shows how hamstrung Palestinians are, while Razi, it turns out, is another cliche: the lone good guy in Israel’s own organization of hotheads, who shoot first and worry about consequences after. Honestly, Razi aside, the Israeli agents come off about as well as the agents in “Omar.” And even he isn’t immune from criticism. At one point he meets a man who remembers that one of Razi’s previous informants died a horrible death, leaving his family shamed. Not even the film’s resident angel has a response to that.
“Bethlehem” loses in the direction department. Yuval Adler’s work is functional and no more, often more like the shoot-it-and-move-on style of TV. Adler lacks the feeling for image rhythms that Abu-Assad has in spades. But then, Adler is a better screenwriter, even if he sometimes paints in broad strokes. You probably wouldn’t want to combine the two films, for obvious reasons, but both are good enough that you may not mind sitting through them twice.