The Exodus' human face

In "Live and Become," the director dramatizes the fate of the Israeli Ethiopians by focusing on one boy who has a secret.

ethiopian child298 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
ethiopian child298 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Live and Become Starring: Moshe Agazai, Mosche Abede, Sirak M. Sabahat, Yael Abecassis, Roni Hadar, Itzhak Adgar, Rami Danon Directed by Radu Mihaileanu. Written by Mihaileanu and Alain-Michel Blanc. 140 minutes. Hebrew title: Tichyeh Ve'tihiyeh. In Amharic, French, and Hebrew, with Hebrew titles. It's been 20 years since Operation Moses, during which Israel helped bring thousands of Ethiopian Jews out of the Sudanese refugee camps to which they fled to escape famine in Ethiopia. Although everyone now knows that this once top secret operation took place, the vast majority of Israelis not of Ethiopian descent know very little about the experience of the Ethiopian refugees after they arrived in Israel. In Live and Become, director Radu Mihaileanu dramatizes the fate of the Israeli Ethiopians by focusing on one boy who has a secret - he is not really Jewish but, following his mother's advice, posed as a Jew so he could join the exodus to safety in Israel. Mihaileanu has set himself a complex, ambitious task, since this story is not of simple rescue but of a child who constantly feels like an outsider, not only because he is Ethiopian but also because he is Christian and because he only pretends to be an orphan. This well-intentioned film occasionally feels clumsy, as the director manipulates events to make points. But its inherent drama and truth, plus the enormous goodwill the director feels toward his characters, carry the film through some of its less convincing stretches. Everything rises and falls on the shoulders of the three actors chosen to play the main character, Shlomo, at different ages. Shlomo starts off at age nine and the film follows him into his early twenties. He speaks three languages - Amharic, Hebrew, and French - with French being the first language of his Israeli foster family. The three gifted young actors who play Shlomo manage very naturally the nearly impossible feat of bringing him to life and making him a real character and more than just an unfortunate victim. The two older Shlomos, Mosche Abede and Sirak M. Sabahat, don't get as much time to make an impression, though, and it is the young Moshe Agazai as the heartbroken nine-year-old who will stay with you. Separated from his mother and burdened by the knowledge that most of his family is dead, Shlomo meets an ailing young Ethiopian woman who poses as his mother and teaches him to say that his father and grandparents had Jewish names. There's a slight queasiness as the refugees are debriefed in Israel (the chairman of the Israel Film Fund, Marek Rozenbaum, has a cameo as an investigator from the Jewish Agency) and asked to offer proof of their Jewish background. You root for Shlomo's fraud to pass undetected, and it does. Shortly after their arrival in Israel, the woman pretending to be Shlomo's mother dies. Isolated by both the sudden transition to the modernity of Israel and by the secrets he carries, Shlomo acts out in the boarding school to which he is sent, attacking other children, refusing to eat and trying to run away. Sympathetic but weary officials place him in Tel Aviv with a foster family, an upper-class, left-wing family of Egyptian and Tunisian descent that speaks French at home. Even though this angelic family wants nothing more than to help him, it takes him years to warm up to them, although he eventually bonds with his foster mother. She's played with a maternal glow by the beautiful Yael Abecassis, the star of many movies including Life Is Life and Tel Aviv Stories and a frequent performer on children's television. In one of the film's most moving scenes, she kisses scars on his face in front of a group of his schoolmates and their parents to dispel rumors that he has AIDS. The film struggles to maintain intensity and drama after Shlomo is placed with this family, since its members are a little bit too good to be true. Shlomo's foster siblings are never jealous of the attention he receives. His foster grandfather (Rami Danon), a kibbutz pioneer, has endless time and patience for him, as do his parents, although Shlomo is withdrawn and rarely responds to their kindness. Making contact with a kes (Itzhak Adgar), an Ethiopian rabbi, he confesses his secret and enlists the man's help to write to his mother. In spite of the affection of his family, he still faces discrimination. A scene in which Jerusalem rabbis want to re-circumcise him (a fate his foster father saves him from) dramatizes the cold arrogance of some sectors of Israel toward these newcomers. When the religious father of a girl in his class refuses to allow him to attend her birthday, Shlomo proves his worthiness by winning a Bible competition. He tries desperately to fit in, but remains confused and alienated. At one point, he goes to a police station to confess his fraud, only to be frustrated when the cop on duty thinks he has self-esteem issues and gives him a pep talk. It's one of the film's lighter moments, but also underscores how incredibly alone he is. Shlomo's story is based on the recollections of many Ethiopians, and the movie meanders toward the end, as if the director was afraid to leave anything out. Eventually, Shlomo navigates the obstacles and becomes a success on every level, although his reserve and sense of being an outsider never diminish. When the film finally ends on an improbably happy note, it has lost much of the focus and intensity of its early scenes. The film is worth seeing, though, for the human face it brings to the great drama of the Ethiopian Jewish migration, as well as for the touching performances by the trio of talented actors who share the lead role. Mihaileanu has succeeded in his main task, to help us understand the complex journey of the Ethiopians in our midst.