Back in the 1980s, during the time of famine in the Horn of Africa, the Israeli government decided to bring home an Ethiopian Jewish sect called the Falashas who, according to legend, are descendants of the offspring of Solomon and Sheba. The problem with this was that the Falasha are African. They escaped the famine to find themselves in an alien land with an alien language and subject to racial discrimination. Schlomo Harrari was a nine-year-old boy when he arrived with his mother who died of consumption soon afterwards. He’s then put into a boarding school where he is deeply unhappy, and is rescued from this by a foster-family of secular French-Israelis. From then on it becomes a coming-of-age story as the film takes Schlomo into adulthood.
There is another layer. Schlomo – the real Schlomo – died on the morning of the flight and a young Christian boy was substituted by his own mother, being sent away from her with the cryptic command to “Live and become.” Become what? A man? A fake Falasha? Jewish? This key opens up the theme of the film. It is an exploration of identity.
This European/ Israeli co-production is gently paced and doesn’t directly address the politics of the Middle East, although its liberal sentiments are stamped across it for all to see. The history goes on in the background, with the assassination of Rabin and the Interfada playing out around them. The family have to react to events, and so does Schlomo. For the first hour the nine-year-old is played by convincingly by Moshe Agazai, and then the necessities of filmmaking force a jump of several years to the adolescent Scholmo, this time played by Moshe Abebe. He’s a nice kid, and he finds a nice Jewish girl (Sara – Roni Habar), and naturally the course of true love is bumpy across the racial divide.
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She, for irony’s sake, is from a Polish-Jewish family. He rebels against his foster father, in the manner of teenagers everywhere, and develops another father-figure relationship with the head spokesman of the Falasha, Yitzak Edgar as Qes Amhra. One gets the feeling that if this was a Hollywood film then this part would be played by Morgan Freeman. But this is quite obviously not from Hollywood. The length and pacing are proof enough of that, even the polylingual dialogue were not. It is an experience to relax into, and the viewer eventually begins to feel like part of the family.
There is also humour that isn’t entirely funny. When a Rabbi, teaching a class of nine-year-olds, asked Schlomo who founded Judaism, the boy replies, “Jesus.” Much rolling of eyes, but the undercurrent of racism that excuses the boy’s answer is there before us. Conversely, when the teenage Schlomo tries to turn himself in as an impostor at a police station, the policeman doesn’t give him a chance to explain the true situation but instead tells him that he has as much right to be there as any of the European Jews and not to listen to those bigots. The institutions are fine, goes the message, but some of the individuals need a kick.
Overall, Live And Become (aka: Va, vis et deviens) is an emotionally involving and enjoyable production. It’s not as important as it thinks it is, but few films are. It’s certainly more worthwhile than most.