This review appeared in the Australian Jewish News on April 21, 2006
Written and directed by Radu Mihaileanu
Back in 1998, Romanian-French film-maker Radu Mihaileanu made Train de Vie (“Train of Life”), a fable-like tale of residents in a Jewish village who escape the Nazis through an ingenious and outrageous deception. Train de Vie is, perhaps, simultaneously one of the most hilarious, profound and under-appreciated dramatic films on the Holocaust. Mihaileanu’s new film is Live and Become, which explores a totally different sense of Jewish experience: the emigration of Ethiopian Jews (the Falashas) to Israel in the 1980’s.
Live and Become commences in a squalid Sudanese refugee camp in 1984, with a nine-year old Christian Ethiopian boy commanded by his heartbroken mother to join the Jews who are being rescued by the Israelis, and is sent off with the words “live and become”. He joins Hana, whose son has just died and finds himself in Israel, a stranger in a very strange land with a foreign name and religion – and instructions never to reveal his secret of not being Jewish. When the sickly Hana dies, the boy – renamed Shlomo by the Israeli immigration officer – is sent through a series of orphanages and youth camps with increasing despair. Sholmo is then adopted by a loving left-wing Sephardic French immigrant family; Yael (Yael Abecassis) and Yoram (Roschdy Zem) already have two children but try hard to make Shlomo welcome by cooking Ethiopian food and putting “I Love Ethiopia” stickers in his bedroom.
Life is anything but easy for young Shlomo, who experiences racism by his schoolmates, their parents and the religious establishment. The film follows him through his Bar Mitzvah, high school years, life on a kibbutz and into university and beyond, all set against the background of the eventful years of the late 1980’s and early 90’s: the first Iraq war, the Oslo accords, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Shlomo grows up, finds his own mentor in an Ethiopian rabbi (Yitzhak Edgar), conducts a strained romance and yearns for his mother.
Other films have had at their centre a faux (false) Jew, most notably Gregory Peck’s character Phil Green in Gentleman’s Agreement and Nicholas Cage’s in Lord of War. But these are adult characters, and Phil Green did not have the challenges to security, identity and self that young Shlomo faces. There is an epic quality to Live and Become, as it neatly illustrates – and only occasionally overdoes – so many themes of Jewish and particularly Israeli life in the late twentieth century. Live and Become also becomes one of the most interesting and best films dealing with emigration to Israel, frequently reminiscent of the 1964 classic Sallah Shabati from Ephraim Kishon.
Sallah may have faced racism, but he was not tormented by the sort of secret carried by Shlomo. And indeed Shlomo frequently tries to relieve himself of his burden, once going so far as to walk into a police station and confess that he is “guilty” of not being a Jew to the policeman on duty. Hilariously, the policeman reacts with anger – not against Shlomo, but against those in Israeli society who he feels are making the Ethiopians feel unwelcome and “un-Jewish”, just as they did to him when he arrived from Romania.
The language in Live and Become shifts frequently and easily from Amharic (the language of the Ethiopians) to Hebrew to French (a clever inclusion, as the film is effectively French production). Shlomo is played by no less than three different actors – as a child (Moshe Agazai), teenager (Mosche Abebe) and young adult (Sirak Sabahat). The focus on the survival of a lone child is heartbreaking, also reminiscent of another great Holocaust drama – Agnieszka Holland’s Europa, Europa, where a Polish Jewish child jumps from one identity to another to survive. And by examining in detail the experience of one person, Mihaileanu – like Holland and others before him – has made a film about human experience much larger than the deceptively simple story he tells.