Bethlehem, a gripping, slam-bang thriller screening as part of the 17th Annual Miami Jewish Film Festival, opens and closes amid expansive, arid backdrops. If they’re meant to convey the vast divide that alienates the clashing Palestinian factions living in the movie’s titular city from each other, director/co-screenwriter Yuval Adler doesn’t dwell on them for too long. The bulk of his tightly plotted spy yarn unfolds in narrow streets, cramped houses and bustling offices. The overarching effect is claustrophobia, as Adler’s restless camera follows the impulsive, short-tempered men caught up in a potent morality play.
Adler’s film is one of several sold-out screenings at this year’s MJFF, the maiden voyage for new festival director Igor Shteyrenberg. (Fear not; there will be a rush line.) He has put together a promising lineup that combines hard-hitting chronicles like Bethlehem and Lucía Puenzo’s Josef-Mengele-in-Argentina potboiler The German Doctor with lighter fare like When Comedy Went to School, the documentary that opens the festival. This documentary takes a look at how the Catskills Mountains served as a training ground for then-up-and-coming stand-up comedians like Jerry Lewis and Sid Caesar. A thematic kindred spirit to this film is When Jews Were Funny, a documentary that traces the history of Jewish comedy and features interviews with Howie Mandel and Gilbert Gottfried. Perhaps the screening I’m anticipating the most is a special 30 anniversary showing of Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose introduced by filmmaker Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, Damsels in Distress). The festival runs Jan. 23 to Feb. 3 at several area theaters.
Bethlehem is the only film I had a chance to see in advance by press time, and I’m glad I did. Instead of the high-minded treatise of Israel-Palestine strife I was expecting, Adler has made a lean and mean B movie, and yes, in this case that is most definitely a compliment. Working from a screenplay he co-wrote with Ali Wakad, Adler has filled his trust-no-one tale with people who not always think before they act. Take, for instance, wet-kitty-faced Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i). In the sullen teen’s defense, if you were stuck being an informant for the Israeli Secret Service while your older brother just masterminded a suicide bombing, chances are you’d be in a dark place, too. And it’s not as if he dislikes his handler, hunky, almond-eyed Razi (played by hunky, almond-eyed Tsahi Halevi), who has become attached to the lad and doesn’t feel comfortable using him to nab his terrorist sibling. Razi’s boss reminds him their suspect, who is hiding in Jerusalem, will probably strike again. “He’s murdered 30 Israelis and you’re worried about his brother?” his superior asks Razi in disbelief.
None too subtly conveyed in that remark is long-simmering contempt for the Palestinians Razi has befriended while on the job. Thankfully, though, Adler does not set out to make an issue movie, ensuring the social-problem trappings serve the genre-driven plot, not the other way around. When Adler adds corrupt government officials, resentful al-Aqsa brigades, and entitled Hamas soldiers to the mix, and the result is a pulpy powder keg of a movie that’s propelled by a sense of urgency. It might be set in the Middle East, but Bethlehem‘s tense conflicts bring to mind the warring families in mob sagas, as well as the rites of passage depicted in inner-city coming-of-age dramas from the 90s. Which is to say Adler’s fully aware of the gravity of his subject matter but does not allow the severity of the stakes to drown out the action.
The film’s centerpiece is a skillfully executed raid that pits Israeli forces against a hostile street crowd with the fate of Sanfur’s brother hanging in the balance. Like the rest of Bethlehem, the sequence is crisp, shot with storytelling economy and a knack for knowing not to overstay its welcome. Such is Adler’s focus that Razi’s personal life, apart from the paternal instinct for his young informant, remains on the sidelines. The filmmaker is far more interested in how the Israeli presence in Bethlehem affects the already-fraught relationships between the city’s Palestinian leaders. Most captivating of all is al-Aqsa Badawi (scene-stealing Hitham Omari), who sees in Sanfur an opportunity to make a power play.
Bethlehem rushes toward a climactic confrontation that, on paper, seems inevitable, but which Adler stages with a disquieting sense of uncertainty. He’s made a taut portrait of Mideast tensions in which brutality and tenderness coexist in uneasy disharmony.
As far as dysfunctional, self-destructive characters go, I far preferred the nest of vipers Adler introduces over the broken household at the core of The Past, the highly anticipated second feature from Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, who won a Foreign Language Oscar two years ago for A Separation. A crumbling home is once again his point of departure, but this time it’s a multi-ethnic clan living in France. Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) and Marie (The Artist‘s Bérénice Bejo) have been separated since Ahmad went back to Iran. She has two daughters from a prior marriage, and now things are really beginning to get serious with current beau Samir (A Prophet‘s Tahar Rahim). Now Ahmad has returned to finalize divorce proceedings so that they can all move on with their lives.
Or can they? Ahmad arrives from the airport to find a home in shambles. Samir’s son acts out in the most annoying ways possible, and Lucie, Marie’s older daughter, rebels against her mom for what she perceives is immature behavior. (Pot, meet kettle.) Ahmad, a collected presence amid all this chaos, attempts to restore a semblance of order, something that rubs Samir the wrong way. I have to agree with the new boyfriend. Ahmad’s a bit of a self-satisfied tool, but so is everyone else Farhadi has written. The film unfolds as a series of conversations between the estranged characters, and instead of flowing steadily like in A Separation, the narrative becomes stagnant as Farhadi shifts from different characters’ point of view. Rather than finding insight into this complicated characters’ lives, the snippy arguments turn The Past into a chore to sit through.
Even more dispiriting, Farhadi remains obsessed with periodically doling out pieces of information that force viewers to constantly reexamine their perception of these baggage-saddled souls, something that came across as a neat storytelling device in A Separation but here feels synthetic, overly programmatic. Long before a haunting final scene turns it into even more of a downer than it already is, The Past OD’s on its all-is-not-as-it-seems reveals, reducing its characters to pawns on a chessboard serving Farhadi’s ambitious narrative pirouettes. The film is nevertheless a beautifully acted portrait of domestic malaise. It’s also joyless and unremittingly grim. A little more levity, and fewer wet blankets on screen, would have worked wonders.
The Past opens Jan. 24 at Regal Cinemas South Beach and the Classic Gateway Theatre (thegatewaytheatre.com). Bethlehem screens Jan. 28, also at Regal South Beach. For more information go to miamijewishfilmfestival.com.