The story of the Falasha jews from Ethiopia is a fascinating one. Legend has it that they are an ancient Biblical race descended from the Queen of Sheba and Solomon. What is certain is that their variant of Judaism developed uniquely in its remote isolation. Given their long history of persecution it is amazing that they survived into modern times, but survive they did! Approximately 30,000 were living in Ethiopia until the seventies, just prior to a staggered mass migration to their ancestral home of Israel. Today only about 5,000 remain in that fascinating country of Ethiopia. Those that emigrated faced difficulties assimilating into their new culture. They faced the trauma of prejudice and racism whilst trying to adjust. It is a subject that has great filmic potential, and the courageous director Radu Mihaileanu has grabbed the bull by the horns and taken on this difficult task.
The film can be seen as a sort of sequel/companion piece to the director's 1998 holocaust movie " Train of Life", in which jews pose as Nazi's to escape deportation. In "Live and Become" the central character poses as a Falasha jew to escape almost certain death by starvation in an anarchic Sudan where the family have fled to. We follow the fortunes of this the boy Schlomo, a corruption of Solomon, as he takes the place of the dead son of a Falasha woman in order to gain passage to Israel and the hope of a better life, where as his mother says, he can "Live and become". But life in the promised land is far from easy, and the boy struggles to adapt to a strange new culture, whilst still pining for the lost African skies. He is faced with cruel racism that blights his young life. On one occasion he is told by the father of his white girlfriend that he will break his finger if he rings the doorbell one more time. But with help and perseverance he begins to succeed in his new life. But he still longs to see his real mother from whom he was so cruelly torn as a child.
The film was made in an unusual mix of Amharic, Hebrew and French which flows quite naturally. Jewish life and customs seem to be authentically portrayed which would appear to be borne out by the films many awards from Jewish film organisations. This certainly adds to the realism! The acting is convincing, with perhaps Yitzhak Edgar the stand out performer as the sympathetic mentor to the boy. The torment of exile is well portrayed through the boy, although there was perhaps a little too much talking to the moon, which substituted for the boy's mother. The issues surrounding migration are examined in what is a very topical issue in the present day. A subject that has been topical down the ages it should also be said. The difficulties of cultural assimilation seems to be the films strongest theme. There is an uncomfortable scene where the boy struggles in interpreting the "Torah" to a room of class mates. Unfortunately the film does run out of steam towards the end in it's frantic attempt to pull in too much Israeli history. Many of the characters, the boy especially are not really fleshed out. His inner turmoil was not explored to any great depth. The ending is also somewhat contrived and melodramatic. In short it lacks that indefinable extra special filmmakers craft and guile to elevate it to something really special.
But these criticisms aside, the director should be lauded for a worthy effort. The film does beg that awkward question. What would we do faced with the same situation? Faced with a battle for survival many take the option of emigrating, if of course that is open to them? Many will take great risks, and sacrifice religious principles to achieve this aim. These are weighty issues to which there are no easy answers. This is a powerful and thought provoking film that does what a good film should. It makes you think! Mihaileanu may have a truly great film in him yet! Only time will tell!!