TIFF 2013: BETHLEHEM Review

     September 9, 2013

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In Dante’s Inferno, the lowest circle of hell is reserved for betrayers.  Judas, Brutus, and Cassius get to spend eternity being masticated by Satan.  As to why Dante made betrayers lower than the low, he saw it as a betrayal of God.  However, I also like to read it as liars undermining the foundation of human society.  Betrayal is the greatest sin, but in Yuval Adler’s Bethlehem, it’s a misdemeanor.  The story is filled with characters backstabbing each other, but none of it carries weight because there’s almost no character development.  There’s barely enough to provide any emotion to the conflict between the main characters.  For a movie where betrayal is the thematic foundation, Adler may as well be building on sand.

The Israeli Secret Service has informants working in Bethlehem in order to monitor the activities of the various terrorist factions.  Sanfur (Shhadi Maryee) is a teenage informant working for Secret Service agent Razi (Tsahi Halevi), and the two have a long relationship to the point where Razi feels fatherly affection for Sanfur even though he’s putting the young man in harm’s way.  Sanfur is the younger brother of Razi’s target, Ibrahim, who is leading the al-Aqsa faction and has committed a terrorist attack in the middle of Jerusalem.  As the hunt to catch Ibrahim heats up, loyalties are tested not only between Razi and Sanfur, but also between Sanfur and his family, al-Aqsa and Ibrahim, and al-Aqsa and the Palestinian Provisional Authority.

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Betrayal can provide rich, dramatic material, but in Adler’s hands, it’s used to desperately keep his film afloat.  The double-crosses keep things going and provide a semblance of conflict, but there’s no reason to care.  If Ibrahim’s lieutenant Badawi (Hitham Omari) learns a shocking truth, it’s hollow because his character is a shallow twerp.  Omari’s bland performance doesn’t help, but he doesn’t have much to work with.  Badawi is just part of a cold machine where treachery is commonplace.  If Adler wants to make a statement about everyone willing to sell each other out, he can, but I don’t know why he would want to.  It’s childish, and it doesn’t make sense since the characters care about feeling betrayed even if we don’t.

The focus on betrayal works best between Sanfur and Razi.  It’s a tragic relationship because it’s based in obfuscation and deception, and their organizations are rooted in vengeance disguised as justice.  Maryee and Haleyi have strong chemistry, and a father-son dynamic is good to have not only for the handler-informant relationship, but also in how Sanfur is betraying his true family.  It’s a relationship worth exploring.

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Instead, Adler pushes it to the periphery, and forces us to watch crummy maneuvering between al-Aqsa, Hamas, and Palestinian government.  Far worse, the director drags the movie through an extended manhunt scene that has no momentum or action, and feels like a lo-rent Zero Dark Thirty.  I can’t figure out why Adler would waste so much time on a single scene when it does nothing to support his main characters or overall themes.

Bethlehem sets up its pieces and then has them meekly bump into each other.  Characters can scream and cry all they want, but the relationships and stakes are rarely worthy of those emotions.  A scene between Sanfur and Ibrahim could be heartbreaking, but that betrayal is off-screen, and only serves to set-up the big, empty set piece.  That excruciatingly dull scene not only drags down the movie, but also highlights the shallowness of everything else because those aspects apparently aren’t as worthy of Adler’s attention.  A father and son planning to betray each other as a matter of life-and-death is a conflict of biblical proportions, but in Bethlehem it may as well be in a pamphlet.

Rating: C-

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