Arts & Culture

Review: Live and Become

The State of Israel has to balance on many knife edges, one being the edge between being a "light unto the nations" and being a nation like any other. Israel's film industry is similarly precariously balanced between being particularist and … Read More

By / May 19, 2008

The State of Israel has to balance on many knife edges, one being the edge between being a "light unto the nations" and being a nation like any other. Israel's film industry is similarly precariously balanced between being particularist and general: between being a knowing participant in a global film industry in which national allegiances are at most of secondary importance on one hand and being located very specifically in a geo-political and cultural juncture that informs daily life on the other. Eran Kolirin's excellent The Band's Visit (2007) fits so neatly into the seamless supranational film industry that the Hollywood "Academy" would not even accept it into the foreign film category for the Oscars. On the other hand, a film like Gitai's Kedma (2002) is so caught up in the context of contemporary Israeli culture that, despite its quality, its importance beyond Israel is almost impossible to determine. Treading the knife edge of the specific is Live and Become, a dramatic fictional narrative about Schlomo: an Ethiopian Christian caught up in Operation Moses, the 1984 emergency airlift of Ethiopian Jews from the civil war raging around them.

The scope of the story is global: it starts in Ethopia, decamps to Israel, leaves for Paris and deals lightly with religious and cultural issues as it travels. To an English-speaking audience tutored on Hollywood films, the plot–a black African has to deal with racial prejudice–also seems pretty universal. The history of the so-called Falashas and their entry to Israel gives the film some local specificity, but it is the internal, secret story of the Christian child hidden as a Jew in Israel that complicates the film in intriguing ways. As one of a black minority whose Judaism is questioned, Schlomo is told, in turn, to be ashamed or have pride in an identity that only he knows is actually a lie. Schlomo is a fascinating cipher for the problem of identity at the level of the individual, the family, and the community for Israel. The issues of identity and persecution are particularly acute for a country dedicated to a people whose persecution is axiomatic but whose sensitivity to prejudice has been, like the curate's egg, good only in parts. For example, from Shimon (Shaike Levi) and Batsheva (Gila Almagor) in Sallah Shabati (1964), to Haled (Saleh Bakri) and Zaza (Lior Ashkenazi) both with Ronit Elkabetz in the aforementioned The Band's Visit and in Late Marriage (2001) respectively and on to Sarah (Roni Hadar) in Live and Become a disquieting trope has emerged. In films about racial or national discrimination cultural acceptance is shown by the protagonist sleeping with a "local" woman. Clearly it's a powerful type of image, and there's nothing wrong with it per se, but even in Israeli film it's a tired figure for a non-comic film. Live and Become is not a profoundly substantial film. It adds little to our understanding of race, culture, or human relationships. It is, however, a film with some claim to effectiveness and artistic success. A complicated story is well told and the framing of the film, at the beginning and end, works surprisingly well for such a potentially open-ended film. The central issues of the film (deracination, prejudice, growing pains) avoid both the cloying and the didactic. Much credit is due to Yael Abecassis who plays Yael, the adoptive mother, and of course to the succession of actors (Moshe Agazai, Mosche Abebe, and Sirak M. Sabahat) who play Schlomo, the lead character. They imbue the central relationship of the film with a convincing depth which rarely draws on stereotypes which keeps the film from the triteness it occasionally threatens. Live and Become is not a film that will shift any paradigms but it is a skilfully spun drama that illustrates some complex difficulties of fitting into a culture that's even set up to absorb multiple cultures. As demonstrated by language, by colour, by culture, by geography and shifting historical prejudices in the film, neither on the level of the general nor on the level of the specific are things really about black and white.

 

Note: Live and Become premiered in 2005, but only opened in New York in this spring.