In the new Israeli drama, Bethlehem, a suicide bomb attack occurs in the middle of Jerusalem, and we get a glimpse inside something we rarely see in the cinema; we go inside the Israeli Secret Service. Many of the events that transpire throughout the film’s running time are based on actions that actually happened – both Israeli operatives and Palestinian militants were interviewed as research for the script – so you know that what you’re seeing is as directly close to the real thing as possible.
At the beginning of the film we’re told that Bethlehem is the territory governed by the Palestinian Authority, but there are groups such as Hamas and al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade that have their own agendas and act to their own rules. Because of this, the Palestinian Authorities have infiltrators.
Bethlehem tells of a lengthy relationship developed between an Israeli Secret Service agent and a teenager from Palestine. What obviously began as a rue to gather inside information appears to have grown into something a little closer. There’s an element of affection for one another, a genuine friendship, or at the very least, a certain amount of respect between the two, but because of the volatile situation on their home turfs and the desperate need for secrecy, the friendship between man and boy is fragile; there’s the continual feeling that the connection between the two is not going to end well.
The one thing that appears evident throughout is the impartiality to the setting. By showing and becoming involved with the human side of the region’s problems there’s never a feeling that the film is siding with one faction or the other, brought on, no doubt, by the fact the director is Israeli and the writer is Palestinian.
But despite the compelling nature of the film, brought on by the authentic presentation of its subject and the refreshing evenhandedness of its storytelling, Bethlehem has its problems. The first half is cluttered. There is a lot of ground to cover and a lot of characters to get to know. The second half streamlines events somewhat, and the story eventually narrows down to a personal and shocking event between the two main characters. But until we get to that point a lot happens. The film jumps from area to area and from character to character, and you’re not always sure where you are. People come and go, then return, and you feel you should know them better than you do.
In the end, while there is a lot to admire in Bethlehem – particularly when you’re made aware of the work involved behind the scenes in order to get the film’s sense of authenticity just right – there’s a impression that maybe the cinema was not altogether the right venue in which to tell this particular story. Had the events presented themselves as a cable mini series – say, three to four one hour episodes shown over a period of as many weeks – there might have been better chances of getting to know all of the faces and an understanding of their characters with considerably more depth than we do here. That way, when certain things happened to them, our insight behind the outcomes would have been far more affecting.
MPAA Rating: Unrated Length: 99 Minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)