Ethiopian boy’s new life in Israel gets epic treatment

Yael Harrari (Yael Abecassis) embraces her adopted son, Shlomo (Moshe Agazai), in “Live and Become.” photo/courtesy of menemsha films

“Live and Become,” Radu Mihaileanu’s gripping saga of an Ethiopian boy who gets a fresh start in Israel, spans two decades and three countries. Yet this is an unusually intimate epic, with the boy’s emotional state always taking precedence over the social and political context.

“Live and Become,” which screened at the 2005 Mill Valley Film Festival and the following year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival – but never received a Bay Area theatrical release – finally came out on DVD last week.

The delay has made the movie’s depiction of adaptation and prejudice from an immigrant’s point of view even more timely.

The film begins in a Sudanese refugee camp in 1984, where thousands of famished and exhausted Ethiopians are clustered in a kind of hellish limbo. A Christian mother recognizes that the Israeli airlift, “Operation Moses,” is the only chance for her 9-year-old son to have a shot at a decent life, and persuades a Falasha (Jewish) woman to take him and pass him off as her child.

Her succinct goodbye – “live and become” – is both a blessing and a command. Shlomo is too young to fully grasp either meaning, but takes it to heart nonetheless.

Once in Israel, he is adopted by a kind and loving Mizrahi family. Shlomo has landed in as ideal a situation as one could hope for, frankly, but it takes him a while to acclimate and accept it.

The catch is that he knows that he is living a lie, and passing as Jewish. And if that isn’t a sufficiently large secret for a youngster to have to preserve, he’s also torn between his Ethiopian identity – and the desire to somehow remain connected to his birth mother – and his daily life as a member of Israeli society.

While Shlomo can’t tell anyone the truth about his non-Jewishnness, he does find a friend and mentor in a grandfatherly Ethiopian spiritual leader who helps him compose letters to his mother and remain tied to his Ethiopian identity.

But the questions of who he is and where he belongs never disappear as Shlomo grows up. The viewer can’t help but pull for this charming and likable adolescent with the proverbial bright future, even as we worry about the cloud over his head.

It’s hardly surprising that our sympathies are always with Shlomo, for he represents a human being plucked from the abyss of abject poverty, limited options and premature death. Plus, he’s just an innocent, with no control over the larger forces that determined and then miraculously revised his destiny.

The paradox is that Jewish viewers, who presumably support Israel, will have no trouble rooting for Shlomo to triumph over whatever institutional hurdles he encounters. The film doesn’t attack the policies of the Israeli government, per se, but contrasts the struggles of the individual against a faceless bureaucracy.

Director Radu Mihaileanu (“Train of Life”) recognizes that his character’s fictional journey to adulthood is terrifically compelling, so he doesn’t resort to histrionic melodrama to hold our interest or manipulate our emotions.

Well, not until the last reel, when Shlomo has to confront, once and for all, the ramifications of his secret. But by and large, Mihaileanu just lets the story unfold naturally, pulling us in deeper.

While “Live and Become” provides some insights into modern Israel, it transcends its location and specificity to address the hopes and difficulties that refugees and immigrants everywhere face. The movie takes the experience of a young man who is unique and special, and adroitly makes that experience accessible and universal.

Most movies purport to take audiences on a journey. “Live and Become” truly does.

“Live and Become” on DVD (144 minutes, Menemsha Films, $29.95). In Aramaic, Hebrew and French with English subtitles.


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