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Film Review


The tragic conflict between Israel and the Palestinians seems endless, with little realistic expectation of a peaceful solution in our life time. Initially the Israelis offered much to the Palestinians but feckless Palestinian leadership, especially under Arafat, rejected everything. Its Arab neighbors were unremittingly hostile to Israel yet offered little tangible support to the Palestinians. Gradually the Palestinians began to realize that Israel was not going away, and that they must have a separate state, one that would not include Israeli territory. But as some Palestinians became more amenable to a solution, Israel's continued occupation of the West Bank and the accelerating construction of settlements poisoned peace efforts. This gave rise to the Second Intifada, which discredited the large segment of Israelis who felt that peace was possible if Israel made some admittedly risky compromises. After the assassination of Rabin (in 1995 by a ultra right wing Israeli fanatic), a right of center government was elected and decided that there would be little if any compromise on the West Bank or the settlements. Israel lives in a very rough neighborhood, with some nasty neighbors, but the occupation and the settlement expansion has made any sort of real peace impossible, much less a two state solution.

On a personal level, the tragedy of two peoples seemingly condemned to fight each other forever is shown in a brilliant, but disturbing film, Bethlehem. Yuval Adler, an Israeli mathematician with a Ph. D in philosophy from Columbia, who worked for a while in Israeli Intelligence, has co-written (with Ali Waked, a Palestinian journalist) and directed this powerful complex film. Sanfur, a Palestinian teenager, is being used as an informant by Razi, an Israeli intelligence agent. Sanfur, only 17, has a brother whom the Israeli's are trying to capture because he is the leader of an ultra militant terrorist group that has just detonated a bomb in Jerusalem. Razi, an appealing family man, had recruited Sanfur years ago but now the stakes are much higher as they fear that Sanjur's brother is planning more missions. Sanfur loves and admires his older brother, and is desperate for attention from his aloof traditional father. Razi has become a father figure for Sanfur, and now Razi needs his help in the hunt for Sanfur's brother. Razi himself, while basically good, has a dark background, and a complicated relationship with Sanfur. Sanfur, even more impulsive than most teenagers, dares his friends to do something stupid that results in him being wounded. Razi gets Sanfur to the hospital and continues to pressure him for information. Sanfur is conflicted and increasingly unable to withstand the pressure from his own culture and from Razi. The story becomes even more convoluted yet always coherent and very suspenseful. There are other riveting characters, such as Badawi, another militant leader; Sanfur's father; and Razi's intelligence agency boss. Each is vividly drawn and played.

There is so much remarkable about Bethlehem: this is Adler's first film and most characters are played by non actors. Every performance is outstanding and it is hard to believe that we are not looking at trained actors. The characters reveal themselves as complex mixtures of good and evil, struggling in a terrible environment of nearly constant conflict. Many of the scenes say much about contemporary Palestinian culture, such as in a struggle between two militant Palestinian groups to claim a body. It is a culture where the sociopath is admired. Filmed on location in Jerusalem and the West Bank which gives a power in itself to the film. This is a very accomplished film; Adler's cinematography and pacing are outstanding. The soundtrack is a noteworthy mixture of Western and Arabic music. Bethlehem has won a number of awards, and was the Israeli submission (for the Oscars) for best foreign film, but was not nominated. In a strange coincidence, the Palestinian submission (which was nominated) was Omar, which had a nearly identical story and was quite good, yet lacked the subtlety and insight of Bethlehem. Both are very powerful but Bethlehem is definitely the better film. I loved Bethlehem but this is a very suspenseful, disturbing film that may not appeal to all. Running time: 99 minutes. Playing at the Embarcadero (moves to Opera Plaza tomorrow) and the Shattuck (Berkeley).

Ciao, Ian

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