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Arts and Entertainment

Israeli Film 'Bethlehem' Is A Cloak-And-Dagger Thriller

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Movies sometimes have a tendency to come out in twos. A famous example being the 1998 dual-threat of the extinction-by-asteroid blockbusters Deep Impact and Armageddon and more recently the Snow White adaptations, Mirror, Mirror and Snow White And The Huntsman. In a strange coincidence, Israel's Bethlehem arrives in American theaters just two weeks after Palestine's Oscar-nominated Omar, with which it shares many striking similarities in narrative and themes.

Bethlehem, by first-time director Yuval Adler, is much like Omar in that it concerns a young Palestinian man who collaborates with Shin Bet in order to let the Israelis take down a militant close to him. Sanfur's (Shadu Mar'i) motivations for acting as a double agent aren't immediately made clear and left as a sort of riddle to unwrap, as the film starts with him already working under Razi (Tsahi Halevy), an Israeli agent. Razi's relationship with Sanfur is complex and strangely paternal despite his ultimate intention of taking out Sanfur's brother Ibrahim, a member of the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades who recently coordinated a suicide bombing in Jerusalem that serves as the film's flashpoint.

Adler's film is more complex and darker than Hany Abu-Assad's Omar and also clearly working with a larger budget. There's more craft and production values involved in Bethlehem and the performances from the cast (both films were comprised largely of newcomers) are stronger and contain far more nuance. The script was co-written with Palestinian journalist Ali Waked, and it clearly tries to provide a balanced view of both sides of the conflict. It weaves in a subplot involving a power struggle between al-Aqsa and Hamas in the wake of a pending ceasefire deal with Israel.

Bethlehem is a thoroughly gripping and thrilling yarn, but it doesn't feel fresh. It's a relatively schematic tale of geopolitical cloak-and-dagger manipulation compared to the slick, low-budget b-movie charm of its Palestinian counterpart.

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Bethlehem opens tomorrow at Sundance Sunset Cinemas (West Hollywood) and Laemmle's Royal (West L.A.), Playhouse 7 (Pasadena), and Town Center 5 (Encino).