In Bethlehem, Israeli director Yuval Adler grapples with the Costa-Gavras dilemma—that is, with the challenge of taking an ongoing political conflict and processing it into something that fits the action-and-suspense mold of the thriller. In this film, the danger comes from equivocation: Because it’s inspired by real conflict, it requests the charge and import that comes from speaking to current events, but because it’s not actually about those events, it also has a tendency to play fast and loose with the material for entertainment’s sake while disclaiming a responsibility to actually “say” anything. Of course, that refusal of responsibility speaks loudly all the same. There are certainly thrilling moments, and hints of an incisive conversation to be had; it’s just that this film won’t be a part of it.
The story tracks Razi (Tsahi Halevi), an Israeli intelligence agent handling a Palestinian asset named Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i), codenamed “Esau,” who’s younger brother of a reclusive terrorist. There’s a ticking clock as Razi and his compatriots race to stop another attack before it happens, and the connection between Sanfur and Razi is the key, though both sides are clouded by the fog of war. Razi is obviously manipulating his asset, but the semblance of a father-son bond doesn’t seem to be entirely manufactured. Likewise, Sanfur comes across as a kid looking for guidance and in need of support, but there remains the question of whether he’s more complicit in the violence than he lets on.
Adler takes a procedural approach to the material, mapping the issuing and execution of orders on all sides and drawing clear factional lines. On the Palestinian side, the major players fall into categories that, while not exactly caricatured, are clearly defined types: the aid-funded PLO are corrupt and double-dealing, Hamas makes an appearance as a hivemind of religious fanatics, while the Al-Aqsa Brigades wear the blackest hats. It speaks to what the film’s aiming for when one of their members, Bardawi (Hitham Omari), is given the most to do and seems to have the most fun doing it. He may be a brutal gun-wielding thug, but he issues his threats and ultimatums with a chilling authority, most notably in a tense armed standoff against Hamas over the body of a fallen fighter.
Bardawi presents a credible adversary to the Israeli security apparatus, which comes on the scene as a high-tech, highly organized force that punches through walls and gets their man; when they wrestle with dilemmas they tend to take the form of “airstrike or ground assault.” The film’s major set piece, an assault operation in a Bethlehem marketplace, is certainly well-crafted and punches up the tension, yet weaving through those thrills is a frisson of uncanny recognition for anyone familiar with Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers. The fact that so many aspects, down to specific shots, echo that earlier film—whether a direct allusion or simply a nod to the exigencies of filming counterinsurgency operations—cast the whole thing in a certain colonialist light. The film tries to balance that with quiet moments of Palestinian life and Razi reaching across cultural barriers; at times those moments feel genuine yet others are rather transparent in their hedging function. In the end, the film’s misstep isn’t some failure at being sufficiently morally gray. In being the thriller that it is, it smudges the palette beyond recognition.