Constructed from sturdy dramatic elements but somewhat slapdash in assembly, Romanian-born helmer Radu Mihaileanu’s “Live and Become” tells how an African boy passes himself off as an Ethiopian Jew to gain entry to Israel, but experiences racism and heartbreak en route. Masquerade concept echoes Mihaileanu’s second film “Train of Life,” where Jews posed as Nazis, but is served here with more contempo grit, although rambling storyline, some ropey perfs and sentimentality prevent pic from becoming the gut punch it might have been. Still, “Live” is likely to find a homeland at Jewish fests and has definite niche-release potential.
At a 1984 Sudanese refugee camp sheltering Ethiopians displaced by civil war and famine, Israeli secret service has begun “Operation Moses,” airlifting thousands of Falashas, or Ethopian Jews, to Israel. A non-Jewish Ethopian woman (Meki Shibru Sivan) spots a way for her 9-year-old son (Moshe Agazai) to survive and sends him to join the Falashas, telling him to “go, live and become,” although the mother never explains what exactly he’s to become. Hana (Mimi Abonesh Kebebe), a Falasha woman whose own son Solomon has just died, lets the child assume Solomon’s identity, and warns him he must never let on he’s not Jewish.
Thanks to an excellent, moist-eyed but not soppy perf by young Agazai, pic’s first third is its strongest, as little Solomon, renamed Shlomo, quickly learns Hebrew and French with the help of his liberal adoptive parents Yael (Yael Abecassis) and Yoram (French-Moroccan character actor Roschdy Zem), who have two natural children already.
Israel, the land promised to the Falashas, turns out to be rife with racism, from children who stroke Solomon/Shlomo’s skin to see if the color will come off, to their parents who ask Yael to withdraw him from his school, worried about so-called “African” diseases. (The scene where she publicly licks her son’s skin and tells them where to get off is one of the pic’s highlights.)
Mihaileanu’s slightly over-ambitious script keeps tabs on Israeli history up to the present, repped by cliched scenes where the family gathers round the TV set to watch the news.
As Solomon/Shlomo grows into a bright teenager (played by Mosche Abebe) and an idealistic young medical student (Sirak M. Sabahat), he finds an additional father-figure in Ethopian-community leader Qes Amhra (Yitzhak Edgar giving a fine, soulful turn in what might described as the Morgan Freeman role), who helps him write letters in his mother tongue Amharic to his real mom back home.
In the closing reel, mild tension is generated over whether Solomon/Shlomo will fess up to his Israeli bride Sarah (Roni Hadar) about his true identity.
Weakest link in the last act is thesping by Sabahat, a handsome kid but who just doesn’t have the chops to make the adult Shlomo interesting enough by the time the two-hour mark has passed. Consequently, the climactic scene in a refugee camp falls flat even though Mihaileanu pulls out the stops.
Score by Armand Amar, with operatic keening melding with African and Middle Eastern instruments, sounds great at first, but grows repetitive. , Pic could easily shed a few scenes to gain a tighter running time.