In 1985 the Mossad, Israeli secret services, with considerable assistance from the United States, ran the clandestine Operation Moses to airlift thousands of famished and ill-treated Ethiopian Jews to Israel from refugee camps across the border in Sudan. These ‘indelible immigrants’, to use a term coined by historian Daniel Boorstin, also known as the Falasha, are still not fully assimilated into Israeli society. And more than 30 years after the first Ethiopian Jews fulfilled their dream of coming to Jerusalem, their children and grandchildren found themselves protesting in Tel Aviv, at one of the most violent demonstrations the city has ever seen. Anger and frustration that has built up over decades exploded in a way few expected. , in response to the brutal and unprovoked police beating of an Ethiopian Jewish soldier.
This movie begins, with a mother bidding farewell to her terrified son, with the words that gives the film its title: ‘Go. Live. Become.’ ‘Go’ is the urgent instruction to find security in Israel. ‘Live’ is her counsel to seize a sudden chance to survive and prosper. ‘Become’ is more problematic, and the movie is constantly alert to what it means in a world of emigration and immigration, asylum seeking and economic migration, where identities are assumed, imposed, blurred and recreated.
The opening section is full of suspense and danger. Can Schlomo convince the Israeli authorities that he’s a Jew? After his interrogation on Israeli soil, a boy a few years older has his cover blown and is roughly escorted from the reception hall, shoved into a car and driven away to be repatriated. Schlomo gets by, but his ailing surrogate mother dies.
Burdened by guilt and loneliness, he fails to adapt to life in various orphanages. Finally, he’s adopted by a kindly Sephardic Franco-Israeli couple, extremely well played by French actor Roschdy Zem and celebrated Israeli actress Yael Abecassis.
These foster-parents, left-wing, semi-secular Jews who initially think the newcomer has been raised in the orthodox faith, draw the boy out and encourage their son and daughter to make him welcome. They represent much of what is best in the state of Israel and protect him from the prejudice, some of it truly ferocious, to which the Falasha are exposed. These sequences are subtly handled, with moral force and without sentimentality.
The years pass, Schlomo takes on a new identity, has a Romeo and Juliet-style love affair with a Jewish girl, works on a Kibbutz, experiences the tensions engendered by the Gulf War and the Intifadas and, as part of his journey of discovery, attempts to contact his mother. At times, melodrama looms and the film becomes schematic. The years Schlomo spends studying medicine in Paris, when he becomes aware of how he might transcend his problems and give practical assistance to his native Ethiopia, are condensed into a couple of minutes with voice-over dialogue.
Live and Become is a powerful and engaging film. Director Radu Mihaileanu ambitiously tackles themes of identity and love as reflected in the racial, social, political, and religious problems of immigration and assimilation. In his struggle to survive in Israel, Schlomo finds many allies beyond his parents. His grandfather (Rami Danon) provides moral support and visits him at a Kibbutz that he helped found. Schlomo comes to rely upon the wisdom of an Ethiopian rabbi, Qes Amhra (Yitzhak Edgar), who meets with him regularly and counsels him when he enters a debate and comes up with a spiritual interpretation of the skin-color of Adam. At a turning point in his life, Schlomo encounters a tolerant and positive-minded policeman who admonishes him to rebuff those who would deny his dignity and human rights.
The filmmaker does a masterful job conveying the guilt this Christian Ethiopian bears for living a lie. But he is carried by the nurturing love of four women: his birth mother, his surrogate mother, his foster mother, and Sarah (Roni Hadar), a feisty young woman who pursues him for ten years before they marry. The closing scenes in Live and Become are poignant because they deal with Schlomo’s final coming to terms with his past and his own special gifts to the world.