Like the Academy Award-nominated film “Omar,” “Bethlehem” explores the complex relationship between a young Palestinian informant and an older Israeli secret service officer who has recruited the kid to spy on his neighbors. The almost father-son relationship at the heart of “Bethlehem,” which was Israel’s submission to the Academy Awards, is just a small part of the tangled personal and political dynamic the movie lays out. It’s as difficult to map as the narrow streets of the titular city where 17-year-old Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i) lives, surreptitiously passing information about his friends and family to his Shin Bet handler, Razi (Tsahi Halevi).
Though similar in setup, both films are worth seeing in their own right, not only for the contrasts between the perspective of “Omar’s” Palestinian director, Hany Abu-Assad, and “Bethlehem’s” Israeli director, Yuval Adler, but also for the surprising correlations between the movies. Defying polemics as readily as cliche, each film offers a nuanced view of the divided loyalties that characterize life in the Middle East. They tell stories that are thorny in ways that few news headlines ever capture.
Ironically, the bond that unites Sanfur and Razi is perhaps the most straightforward connection in the film, even though it is Sanfur’s older brother, Ibrahim (Hisham Suliman), a terrorist leader of the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, that Razi is using Sanfur to spy on. Their unlikely friendship, although in some ways a cautious one, is arguably direct and genuine, transcending the fact that the teenager is, in the eyes of Razi’s Shin Bet colleagues, little more than an expendable intelligence “asset.”
Far thornier is the rivalry between the al-Aqsa militia and the armed wing of Hamas, both of which have contentious relations with the Palestinian Authority, which ostensibly runs the city of Bethlehem. Other internecine struggles are illuminated between Ibrahim’s lieutenant, Badawi (Hitham Omari), an Arab of Bedouin origin, and his Palestinian comrades, who mock Badawi’s roots in the same way some Europeans scorn Gypsies. For his part, Razi also tangles with his colleagues, who fault him for getting too emotionally involved with Sanfur.
Adler nicely harnesses the mounting volatility of this situation, which builds to an intense if tragic conclusion.
Amid the numerous bonds and barriers that crop up between the central players, the focus stays primarily on Sanfur and Razi, not on the machinations of various political factions and familial forces. Though their relationship is touching — even, one might say, loving — there’s a double betrayal involving both protagonists that will take its toll in horrific, if not unexpected, violence.
Although “Omar” and “Bethlehem” are far from the same film, each trades in a sense of hopelessness that feels both inevitable and irreparable. If filmmakers from two sides of the conflict are essentially saying the same thing, how many more movies will it take before people just stop watching and give up?
★ ★ ½
Unrated. At Angelika Film Center Mosaic and West End Cinema. Contains bloody violence, crude language and smoking. In Arabic and Hebrew with subtitles. 99 minutes.