french films > Live and Become

Live and Become

Live and Become

Review score: * * * * *

cast: Yaël Abecassis, Roschdy Zem, Moshe Agazai

year: 2004

colour: yes


director: Radu Mihaileanu

runtime: 140

With epic aspirations that are only partly realized, the movie, directed by the Romanian-French filmmaker Radu Mihaileanu, aspires to be something like a contemporary “Exodus” from an outsider’s point of view. But so many themes converge with so much history, as the film tries to integrate an anguished personal odyssey with two decades of events, many seen briefly on television, that 140 minutes is barely enough time. For most of those two decades the young unnamed African, who assumes the name Schlomo, lives a lie. (He is played by Moshe Agazai as a boy, Mosche Abebe as an adolescent and Sirak M. Sabahat as a young adult, and the movie’s transitions from one actor to the next are smooth.) His secret — that he is Christian and not descended from the Ethiopian Jewish tribe known as the Falasha, also called the Beta Israel — lends the movie its moral traction, as well as suspense over whether his secret will be discovered. Conceptually the film is a sequel of sorts to the director’s 1998 Holocaust fable “Train of Life,” in which Jews pose as Nazis to escape deportation. The story begins in 1985, when the boy is 9 and living with his mother in a squalid refugee camp in Sudan. In the wrenching opening scene the mother (Meskie Shibru Sivan) forces her weeping son to leave her side and join the transport of Ethiopian Jews to Israel in the secret Israeli airlift code-named Operation Moses. Under the provisions of Israel’s Law of Return, those with Jewish parents and grandparents could settle in Israel and become citizens; thousands emigrated. Too young to understand that his life is probably being saved, the boy is substituted at the last minute for Solomon, the dead son of Hana (Mimi Abonesh Kebede), a Falasha woman who agrees to take him. The enigmatic final words of his mother, “Live and become,” resonate through the rest of the film. Drilled to remember the facts of another boy’s identity, Schlomo (shortened from Solomon) is warned never to reveal his true identity, lest he be deported. It isn’t until years later that he realizes his mother’s rejection was his salvation and not a punishment. For the remainder of the film he pines for her, and a recurrent, overused image shows him gazing at the moon and talking to her. Soon after arriving in Israel, Hana dies of tuberculosis and Schlomo is adopted by a liberal French-Israeli couple, Yael (Yael Abecassis) and Yoram (Roschdy Zem), who already have two children. Although they are affectionate and supportive, Schlomo has difficulty adjusting; he refuses to eat, picks fights and tries to run way. Racism is a fact of life. The only nonwhite student in his school, Schlomo is shunned by his schoolmates, whose parents demand that he be withdrawn because he is exposing their children to exotic African diseases. Outraged at their prejudice, Yael storms into the school, throws a fit and, in the film’s most unexpected and moving gesture, publicly kisses and licks Schlomo’s face to demonstrate he is not a health threat. As a teenager Schlomo develops a crush on Sarah (Roni Hadar), a spirited girl whose father, sensing Schlomo may not be Jewish, slams the door in his face and warns that he will cut off his finger if he presses the doorbell again. But the relationship continues long distance after Schlomo leaves Israel to study medicine in Paris. And when he returns after years apart, they marry. Schlomo finds a mentor in Qes Amhra (Yitzhak Edgar), a kind-hearted Ethiopian rabbi who helps him write letters to his mother in his native language. But as he assimilates into Israeli society, mastering Hebrew, studying the Torah and having a bar mitzvah, the movie portrays him as a divided soul torn between his African roots and his assiduously cultivated Jewish identity. The movie is more successful at developing subsidiary characters like Qes, Yael and Sarah than at plumbing the depths of Schlomo’s tormented inner life. Armand Amar’s score, a wailing pastiche of Middle Eastern and Western styles, helps evoke his suffering and longing, but it is both annoyingly repetitive and, like Schlomo’s monologues to the moon, mawkish. As the movie barrels from the mid-1980s onward, its pace becomes choppy. Incendiary emotional confrontations are rushed, shortcuts taken, and the movie screeches to a halt in an overly sentimental ending that is too abrupt to elicit the buckets of tears it might have, given more preparation. Yet “Live and Become” exerts a tidal pull. It makes you feel the weight of history, of populations on the move in a restless multicultural world. It makes you reconsider cultural assimilation, a process that may seem to be complete but whose underlying conflicts may never be fully resolved.


Comments are moderated. They are displayed after an administrator validation.


You can reload the captcha by clicking on it