Amid so many dark and angry pics on societal tensions that are screening at Cannes, it’s rare to come across such a simple charmer as “James’ Journey to Jerusalem,” which turns an ironic mirror on a certain portion of contempo Israeli society through the eyes of an ingenuous migrant worker. Befitting its childlike title, there’s a fable-like quality to this first feature by documaker Ra’anan Alexandrowicz that packs just as much punch as a more “serious,” didactic movie while entertaining the viewer at the same time. It’s a modest effort best suited to fests and the small screen, but some niche theatrical biz is also possible on the back of good reviews.
Over faux-naif paintings and a native choir describing his journey, James (Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe), a young, devout Christian from the imaginary African village of Entshongweni, is sent by his people on a pilgrimage to “Zion, the Promised Land, the center of the universe.” Immediately upon his arrival in Tel Aviv, he’s thrown in jail by a cynical immigration officer, who doesn’t buy his story that he just wants to visit the fabled city of Jerusalem.
While James is busy praying to God that he can complete his holy mission, he’s bailed out by Shimi (Salim Daw), a hardnosed Israeli who’s in bed with the authorities and handpicks illegals to exploit them as cheap labor. Shimi reckons James, who speaks English, is a good investment; James reckons Shimi is his personal savior.
Thus begins a slow awakening by James to the realities of contempo life in the Promised Land. While adhering to his Christian principles, James starts a private business, unknown even to Shimi, who’s come to trust him.
However, he still has to learn the hardest lesson of all — that even in Zion there’s one law for wealthy Jews and one for illegal immigrant workers. All the cash in the world still won’t get him into the roped-off section of society.
There’s enough material here for a bitter and violent movie, but Alexandrowicz has clearly decided that irony is as powerful as venom. His script is fronted by a terrific perf from Shibe as young James, who never loses his optimistic view (pic ends on a wonderfully simple and moving note). His rise from African togs to natty suit and cell phone, while still retaining his optimism and religious principles, is utterly believable in Shibi’s performance.
Daw, who’s actually an Arab actor, is equally believable as a hard-assed Israeli who’s firm but fair. The stratum of wealthy Israeli society that lives off cheap labor such as James is easy game for any movie, and it’s to Alexandrowicz’s credit that he doesn’t go overboard. Arie Elias, is also good, without slipping too conveniently into the role of a sympathetic Israeli.
Despite being shot on DV, pic looks OK in 35mm on a big screen. Alexandrowicz shows no particular cinematic style, but the movie cuts together easily and doesn’t overplay its welcome at 90 minutes.