In movies ranging from “Notorious” (1946) to “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012), spies sacrifice everything for the mission. Pangs of conscience, doubts about purpose, and worst, personal involvement, must all be put aside. In Yuval Adler and Ali Waked’s “Bethlehem,” in which an Israeli secret service officer turns a Palestinian teenager into a mole and informer, the rules of the game are no different.
Largely nonpartisan (Adler and Waked, are, respectively, a former Israeli agent and a Palestinian journalist), the film focuses on the moral limbo of those engaged in, as Vice President Dick Cheney once put it, “the dark side.” A taut, expertly constructed, and suspenseful police procedural, it also explores the issues of loyalty, trust, betrayal, and revenge that those engaged in such morally ambiguous if essential activities would prefer not to think about.
Such is the case with Razi (Tsahi Halevy), an agent for Shabak, Israel’s elite internal security force, who somehow has managed to gain the trust and cooperation of Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i), the 15-year-old brother of Ibrahim (Hisham Suliman), one of the fiercest leaders of the breakaway terrorist group the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades. For two years the pair have worked together, and have bonded like father and son, with Razi helping out Sanfur and his family with favors while Sanfur provides Razi with information. But then, like most teenagers, Sanfur rebels against his surrogate father and starts doing dumb things like daring his unsavory pals to shoot him with an AK-47 while he wears a flak jacket.
Razi scolds him for this stunt and gets him stitched up, but when Ibrahim breaks an uneasy truce and sends a suicide bomber to blow up dozens of Israelis, the odd coupling of Palestinian teen and Israeli agent unravels. Somehow Razi must exploit his bond with Sanfur and maneuver him into revealing his brother’s whereabouts. In effect, Sanfur will be unwittingly murdering his own brother.
Despite this duplicity, Razi remains one of the film’s most sympathetic characters. Some of the other Israeli agents aren’t very nice people, but all the Palestinians come off as fanatical, scheming, vengeful, and sociopathic. The ambitious terrorist leader Badawi (Hitham Omari) is especially reptilian; he also establishes a bond with Sanfur, and tries to turn the confused youth against his former friend in Shabak. On the other hand, though Badawi is not as good-looking and compassionate as Razi, the two are engaged in the same dirty tricks.
Despite this imbalance in positive portrayals, “Bethlehem” never gets political, at least in the partisan or ideological sense. It does, however, depict the internecine politics of all the warring parties with depressing authenticity. But a deeper conflict between good and evil lies beneath this petty, lethal, and insoluble squabbling. When a film bears the title “Bethlehem,” uses code names like “Esau,” and delves into primal themes of fratricide and patriarchal revolt, a biblical reading is inevitable. It all comes down to a deed that recalls the book of Genesis, as a figure stands in a wasteland with bloodstained hands — as if waiting for the voice of God, and His judgment.