Yuval Adler’s delirious debut feature skips the opening credits and gets right down to bullet-riddled business. That’s a smart move, especially if you’re trying to pinpoint the film’s ethnicity (and political allegiances). The viewer is quickly immersed in the perennial Arab-Israeli conflict. Razi (Tsahi Halevi) works for the Israeli secret service. Over a two-year period he has established a deep emotional bond with informant Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i), a Palestinian teenager whose older brother Ibrahim (Hisham Suliman) is a key player in the resistance. Why is Sanfur leaking information to Razi? That’s one piece of a complex puzzle, and, again, Adler’s brisk style keeps you guessing: whose side are we on?
The film’s evenhandedness stems from many factors: for instance, the director is Israeli; the co-writer, Ali Wakid, is Palestinian (as is Hitham Omari, the actor who portrays Badawi, a charismatic, volatile operative working for Ibrahim). Mar’i, Halevi, and Omari are first-time thesps—which is hard to believe until one gleans from the press notes that Halevi served in the Israeli military for several years. (In real life Omari, as it happens, is a news cameraman.)
From the very first scene there’s no doubt things cannot end well. Perhaps the pace, punctuated by shocking acts of violence, is too rapid. Unpacked, Bethlehem could easily spread out over an entire TV season, but it’s refreshing to be reminded how much can be accomplished in a mere 99 minutes.