Tuesday, April 07, 2009

From Ethiopia to Israel: Live and Become

They are considered the descendents of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. For centuries the Jews of Ethiopia, the so-called Falasha, endured persecution, while maintaining their religious traditions. Their precarious position finally became untenable in the 1980’s, when faced with the lethal combination of catastrophic drought and the oppressive Marxist Mengistu regime. With the support of the C.I.A., Israel smuggled thousands of Falasha out through the Sudan. Though young Solomon is not Jewish, Operation Moses represents his only chance for life in Radu Mihaileanu’s Live and Become (trailer here), now available on DVD.

Solomon’s family might be Christian, but like the beleagured Falasha, they are still dying amid the violent chaos of a Sudanese refugee camp. To save her son, Solomon’s mother gives him up forever, ordering him to take the place of a recently deceased Falasha boy on a flight to Israel, instructing him to “live and become.” It is a sacrifice that will cause years of confusion and guilt for Solomon.

Deeply traumatized, Solomon, now known as Schlomo, is initially a problem child in Israel. Adopted by a left-wing Israeli couple of French descent, Schlomo still feels socially alienated, but finds love and support from his adopted mother Yael. Indeed, the entire Falasha community has trouble integrating, in part due to widespread skepticism regarding their religious legitimacy. After all, the Queen of Sheba was not Jewish.

LAB is in the tradition of films like Doctor Zhivago, which tell an epic story grounded in history, from a very personal perspective. While occasionally heavy-handed, as when Schlomo has to debate whether God is white or black, LAB is emotionally engrossing, from start to finish.

Mihaileanu assembled an excellent cast, who entirely disappear into their respective roles without appearing to act at all. Particularly moving is Yael Abecassis as Schlomo’s Israeli mother, giving easily the most touching maternal performance in recent memory. Of the three talented actors playing Schlomo at various ages, the youngest, Moshe Agazai, is the most remarkable. He is absolutely convincing in the film’s crucial early scenes.

Watching LAB brings to mind Agnieszka Holland’s Europa, Europa. Both are excellent films based around young protagonists that form mirror opposites of each other. In Holland’s film a young boy must pretend not to be Jewish to survive the Holocaust. Conversely in LAB, Schlomo’s only chance for life comes through passing as a Falasha Jew, in order to reach the safe haven of Israel.

LAB is a riveting film that is also quite informative about Operation Moses and the Falasha experience in general. A winner of many audience awards at film festivals around the world, it releases on DVD today.