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Periodically, Israel opens its borders to Jews from countries that are awful enough to make some opportunistic gentiles pose as children of the Torah. Later, some of these refugees are exposed and repatriated. That’s the primary conflict of Live and Become, which begins with a semidocumentary account of 1984’s “Operation Moses,” Israel’s airlift of Ethiopian Jews (known as Falashas) from refugee camps in Sudan. Yet director and co-writer Radu Mihaileanu’s moving drama is not the tale of a con artist. When the film’s Christian protagonist arrives in Israel, he’s only 9, too young to have developed a strategy for passing as Jewish. He has only his desperate mother’s advice, given as she sends him to Israel with a Falasha woman whose own son has just died: “Go. Live and become.”
The living boy (Moshe Agazai) takes the name of the dead one, Solomon. Upon arrival in Israel, that’s peremptorily adjusted to Schlomo (the name of the village idiot in Mihaileanu’s Holocaust farce, Train of Life). Like so many young Jews who pose as gentiles in films about World War II and other periods of oppression, Schlomo is terrified of being found out. Yet he also misses his mother, and he imagines that life in a refugee camp with his peers would be preferable to a school where he’s surrounded by people who don’t speak his language and distrust his brown skin. One day, he even sets out to walk back to East Africa, showing a fervor to escape Israel that suggests he has the strength to live in that threatened land.
The woman who posed as Schlomo’s mother is soon dead of TB, and the boy is adopted by a family of left-wing secular Franco-Israelis so open-minded they suggest that he lead prayers before dinner. (He demurs.) While father Yoram (Roschdy Zem) accepts Schlomo primarily as a matter of principle, mother YaÃ«l (YaÃ«l Abecassis) grows to love him. Although it’s Yoram who rescues the boy from the rabbi who wants to “convert” him by drawing a symbolic drop of blood from his already-circumcised penis, YaÃ«l is Schlomo’s most ardent defender. She confronts the racist parents who want the Ethiopian removed from their children’s school; years later, she also deflects Yoram’s anger when the grown Schlomo (now played by Sirak M. Sabahat) announces that he intends to forgo Israeli military service and go to Paris to study medicine. Becoming a relief-organization doctor is his roundabout ticket to return to Africa for the movie’s improbable coda.
Live and Become charts some 15 years of Schlomo’s life and the history that parallels it. The focus sometimes shifts from the boy’s progress to Israel’s, as when Scud missiles hit during the 1991 Gulf War. Alain-Michel Blanc and Mihaileanu’s script also alternates between the stuff of everyday life—like Schlomo’s sputtering long-term romance with Sarah (Roni Hadar), whose family abhors him—and developments that emphasize the boy’s (supposed) status as a Falasha. Some of the latter offer strong indictments of Israeli racism and hypocrisy, yet not all of them are convincing. While successfully debating an imperious kid who insists that Adam was white, Schlomo invokes the oft-quoted opening of the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the word”—not a line likely to win applause at a Torah class debate. (Perhaps Mihaileanu, a Jew who is based in France but is originally from Romania, wasn’t himself much of a Torah scholar.)
Like most movies in which the central figure is played by several actors over various ages, Live and Become fails to create a unified characterization; Schlomo touches the heart less as a specific person than as the embodiment of an entire people. What he survived during the Ethiopianâ€“Eritrean conflict seems more important than his plight as an outsider posing as a member of the tribe. Still, Schlomo’s feigned identity allows the movie to satirize orthodox Israelis’ willingness to make practical decisions based on ancient myths: The Falashas’ Jewishness is in doubt because they are supposedly the descendants of the Queen of Sheba, a legendary figure who rates only a few lines in the Hebrew Tanach. Like Schlomo, she’s not a fully rendered person. But where the Queen of Sheba exists only to exalt King Solomon, Schlomo serves a more complicated purpose: He’s symbol and goad as well as character, which means that Mihaileanu is asking even more of him than Israel does. Most of the time, Schlomo delivers, as does the film that tells his multifold tale.