Bethlehem may have birthed a Prince of Peace, but there's no peace in "Bethlehem," certainly not for those waging the war of nerves and wits portrayed in Israeli director Yuval Adler's smartly written, kinetic thriller about divided loyalties and insecure adolescence. Israel's submission to the recent Oscars -- and an intriguing counterweight to the Palestinian nominee, "Omar" -- "Bethlehem" is about the Arab-Israeli struggle, naturally, but finds its real emotional heat in the internecine conflicts that keep an insurgency raging and a people off-balance.
Viewers, too, will be kept off-balance, wondering for much of the movie about the motivations of Sanfur (Shadi Mar'i), a feisty adolescent whose brother is a resistance fighter on the run.
As the opening titles tell us, Israel maintains many informants inside the occupied territories, and one of them is Sanfur, who doesn't seem to fit the profile except for an evident emotional neediness, and the solace offered by Israeli agent Razi (Tsahi Halevi). Razi may be playing his young charge, but he's being played back, too -- Sanfur has been funneling Hamas money to his brother, under the noses of the Israelis, the PLO and his brother's own "brigade" of cutthroats. "Bethlehem" weaves a tangled web of rumor, innuendo and lies that may occasionally leave the audience at sea, but maintains considerable tension.
Using several nonprofessional actors who turn in utterly convincing performances (Halevi, Mar'i), Adler has created an action film with a conscience, a crime procedural that sometimes suggests an "MI5" for the West Bank. While a critic for the Israeli daily Haaretz called the film "Israeli propaganda," he may have been too close to call it. The movie is not about picking sides in the larger struggle. It's about a kid adrift, who can be seduced by a kind word. As such, "Bethlehem" is a savvy study on terrorist recruitment, as well as a more-than-gripping drama.
PLOT The insecurities of a Palestinian teenager are exploited by his Israeli "handler," as the boy tries to stay loyal to his fugitive brother, and the forces around him. Unrated.
CAST Tsahi Halevi, Shadi Mar'i, Hitham Omari
BOTTOM LINE Taut thriller of psychological complexity. (In Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles)