As someone who is admittedly uninformed when it comes to much of the foreign film industry, I’ve been in uncharted waters as of late, with high expectations for two Israeli films that will soon see their release in the U.S. One is the darkly comedic horror Big Bad Wolves, and the other is Bethlehem, a political war thriller of the highest order that serves as the directorial debut for Yuval Adler. It also happens to utilize a cast mostly comprised of non-actors, but that’s almost impossible to tell watching the trailer above.
Via Deadline, the preview nearly caused my jaw to cramp, as I didn’t realize how tightly it was clenched. Bethlehem tells a multi-tiered story of both secret double-crossing and public double-crossing, which is character behavior that you don’t want to see when seemingly everyone’s lives are on the line. It looks like one of those movies where I will try my damnedest not to mentally put myself into the main character’s shoes.
The story follows Razi (Tsahi Halevi), a military intelligence officer who has spent years working with the now 17-year-old Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i), the younger brother of a Palestinian military leader named Ibrahim (Hisham Suliman). The shit hits the fan once everyone starts figuring out that Sanfur has been working for both sides, and all manner of moral dilemmas rear their multi-threaded heads. Which is more important? The family you were born with, or the family you create through outside relationships?
The film has received a great deal of praise for delving into the politics of the story headfirst without playing referee to what’s going on, giving ample attention to each character’s differing points of view. If there’s anything scarier than a vicious murderer, it’s siding with one. If this all sounds somewhat similar to Homeland, you may not be surprised to learn that it's based on the Israeli series Hatufim (Prisoners of War).
The film is hugely popular in its homeland and took home six of the 12 Israel Film Academy Awards that it was nominated for, including Best Film, Best Director and Best Screenplay. Halevi took home the prize for Best Supporting Actor, while Mar’i was nominated for Best Actor; both astounding achievements considering neither of them have ever appeared in a film before. Halevi was a former military man himself, so that probably fueled his performance.
Bethlehem is Israel’s submission for the Best Foreign Language feature for next year’s Academy Awards. Should it get in, it will probably be facing off against strong competition like Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises and Asghar Farhadi’s The Past. U.S. audiences can expect to get their knuckles whitened when the film releases on February 21, 2014.