Film-Forward Review: LIVE AND BECOME

Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

Yaël (Yaël Abecassis) and Shlomo (Moshe Agazai)
Photo: Menemsha Films

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Directed by Radu Mihaileanu
Written by Radu Mihaileanu & Alain-Michel Blanc
Produced by Denis Carot, Marie Masmonteil & Mihaileanu.
Director of Photography, Remy Chevrin
Edited by Ludo Troch
Music by Armand Amar
Released by Menemsha Films
Language: Hebrew, French & Amharic with English subtitles
Israel/France/Belgium/Italy. 140 min. Not Rated.
With Yaël Abecassis, Roschdy Zem, Sirak M. Sabahat, Moshe Agazai, Moshe Abebe, Yitzhak Edgar, Roni Hadar, Rami Danon & Mimi Abonesh Kebede.

Opening narration and photographs document the persecuted tribe that other Ethiopians derogatively call Falashas, “those who cannot own land.” (Legend has it that they descended from the Queen of Sheba’s partnering with King Solomon.) Over the millennia, they have maintained a rigorous biblical Judaism, keeping to the strictures of diet and rituals while observing the Sabbath and festivals. Religious experts around the world from the 19th century on have declared them to be Jews, who could therefore claim the right of return to modern Israel. In the 1980s, intensified attacks on the community drove many on a dangerous trek on foot to bleak Sudanese camps, also teeming with Christian and famine refugees.

The Mossad’s planes rev their engines in 1984 to fulfill the Biblical prophecy to bring the chosen people to Jerusalem in the surreptitious “Operation Moses” from such a refugee camp in this fictional story, where a Christian mother offers her son to a bereft and ill Jewish mother, Hana (Mimi Abonesh Kebede), to assume the identity of Hana’s just deceased son. The boy’s mother instructs her son to “live and become and don’t come back until then,” and both women admonish him to keep his identity a secret. The plane then seems to take him not just east, but across centuries.

There, he is given the Hebrew name Shlomo, and eventually he finds protection and supportive love in a French-speaking home, an intriguing reflection of Israeli diversity. His adoptive mother Yael (Yael Abecassis) and her mother are French born. On the other side of the family, the avuncular grandfather is an Egyptian who left Alexandria to found a kibbutz, and Roschdy Zem (Days of Glory and Le Petit Lieutenant) richly plays the adoptive father. Shlomo’s new activist parents march in peace demonstrations and challenge right wing fanatics and xenophobic, rumor-mongering bigots head on, fiercely protecting their adopted son.

Shlomo is portrayed by three Ethiopian Jews who convincingly convey his passage from a nine-year-old (Moshe Agazai) suffering posttraumatic stress, to a teenager (Moshe Abebe) whose adolescent rebellion is exacerbated by prejudice and guilt over his true identity, and then a young man (Sirak M. Sabahat) trying to find his place in the world, from a kibbutz to Ethiopian dance clubs, recalling the girl’s haunted exile in Persepolis.

While director/co-writer Radu Mihaileanu veers towards an international Hallmark Hall of Fame special on immigration and assimilation, he is less sentimental here than in his bittersweet Holocaust fantasy Train of Life, which also touched on issues of identity. Traveling the festival circuit for the past couple of years, Live and Become packs in a lot of extensively researched information and moral lessons, such as when the teenaged Shlomo aims to prove his Jewish bona fides to his bubbly girlfriend’s racist father by winning a Talmudic competition. Coached by his Ethiopian rabbinical mentor Qes Amhra (played with warm, moving dignity by Yitzhak Edgar, a kibbutz farmer recruited for the film), he trumps his opponent on the question of how Adam’s race reflects God’s image.

As a Jewish parallel, the film evokes the “lost boys of Sudan” followed in the touching documentary God Grew Tired of Us. But most of all, it is hard to resist the struggles of any guy who survives and flourishes thanks to the love of four feisty women. Nora Lee Mandel
February 1, 2008



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