THERE’S a quality of biblical tragedy to this Mideast spy drama, which was Israel’s 2013 Academy Award submission. It’s a primal conflict, the story of a child coming of age between two father figures. Sanfur (Sahdi Marei) is the teenage brother of a wanted Palestinian militant. Razi (Tsahi Halevi), an Israeli military intelligence officer who has spent years cultivating Sanfur as a mole, pumps him for information that can thwart suicide bombers. He also gives the sullen boy more guidance, attention and kindness than his biological father provides.
Debut filmmaker Yuval Adler reportedly was an Israeli spook, which would account for the film’s rich and persuasive spy-world detail. Bethlehem, co-written with Muslim journalist Ali Waked, presents an even-handed if pessimistic portrait of its characters and the outlook for peace. The infighting between rival Palestinian factions is as rabid and deadly as their battles against Israelis. And that nation’s approach to combat is portrayed unsparingly, with Israeli soldiers winning battle after battle yet pushing ever deeper into a quagmire.
There’s a Zero Dark Thirty level of tension in a scene of troops demolishing a bystander’s house in a firefight with a fugitive militant. Nerve shredding as it is, the most resonant emotion is the feeling that another family will be radicalized in this self-defeating victory.
Halevi makes a charismatic and sympathetic hero, with real feelings for the boy he has essentially raised. Marei taps into a convincing vein of youthful distress and rage as he comes to terms with his dangerous situation. Swap the characters’ contemporary clothes for historical garb and the bloody climax between the emotionally tormented boy and the ethically compromised man could be a scene of Old Testament retribution.
— Minneapolis Star-Tribune