“Live and Become,” the stirring feature, is set in 1985, during the peak of Operation Moses, a massive airlift of thousands of Falasha, Ethiopian Jewish refugees, who are fleeing oppression in their native country.
One Jewish boy, marked for a rescue-flight to Israel, dies as the story begins. Another boy, a Christian (Moshe Agazai), secretly takes his place. He does so with the tacit cooperation of both the dead boys mother, and his own mother.
At age 9, Shlomo (as he is renamed; we never learn his earlier name) is too young to realize his life is being saved. He knows only that he is being cruelly separated from his real mother, and that he must never ever reveal his true identity to anyone. Israeli authorities are very severe about deporting pretenders they discover among the rescued. His adoptive mother dies, apparently of tuberculosis, very shortly after their arrival.
Completely on his own, Shlomo proves a gifted but difficult student. He learns Hebrew easily, but refuses to eat. In his heart, he speaks to his mother in Africa each night by addressing his thoughts to the moon, overhead. He picks fights with schoolmates. He finally even flees the dormitory one night, headed south to Ethiopia wearing little more than a bedsheet. The authorities overtake him. They then arrange for Schlomo to be adopted by a liberal, French-Israeli couple, Yael (Yael Abecassis) and Yoram (Roschdy Zem).
And so begins a hopeful, healing journey of Shlomos young life. The way is still fraught with difficulty. He not only has new parents, but new siblings. (He also has a warm, droll new grandfather, played by Rami Danon.) They all adjust to one another by stormy degrees. However, a deep and mutual love is gradually forged, especially between the boy and his new mother, Yael. She becomes his ferocious protector when the parents of Schlomos schoolmates recoil from his color, or what they pre-judge to be his lack of intellect, or what they imagine to be the diseases he may have brought with him from Africa. Yael will have none of it. She curses their pettiness, and wins the confrontation.
His adoptive father Yoram is no less fierce in his love, especially when a group of fundamentalist clerics at the Chief Rabbinate of Jerusalem manhandle the boy in a misguided effort to ritually cleanse him (attempting to take a drop of blood from his penis), in tandem with every other Ethiopian they can lay hold of. Through this episode, which triggers a riot and afterward sparks vigorous marches of protest, we become privvy to rich layers of conflict and nuance in Israeli society which are seldom communicated in the American news media.
Around this time, the boy pays a visit to a prominent Ethiopian rabbi he sees on television, Qes Amhra (Yitzhak Edgar). Qes agrees to write letters to Africa for the boy. If the old man suspects that his new young friend is secretly a gentile, he lets it pass.
As a teenager, circa 1989, Shlomo (now played by Mosche Abebe) grows tall and princely. He falls in love with a local beauty Sarah (Roni Hadar). She is as much in love with him, but her father vehemently, even brutally, opposes the match. Racial prejudice is a factor. Yet Sarahs father also intuits something we and Schlomo know to be true — that deep down, he is inauthentic. Schlomo counteracts this by mastering the Torah. He enters a steep intellectual competition known as The Controversies, in which he must debate profundities of Scripture with no margin for error. Qes tutors him in nuances of spiritual law, but advises him to understand it from his heart.
Shlomo is obliged to debate the skin-color of Adam. The very topic is a pointed insult aimed at him by Sarahs father, one of the judges, yet Schlomo speaks to it beautifully. Nevertheless, her father remains unmoved by his triumph. Sarah still loves him, but as he becomes an adult (played by Sirak M. Sabahat), Schlomo keeps her at arms length. However deeply he has assimilated, however passionately he has embraced the spiritual and intellectual rigors of Judaism, there is no one he feels he may trust with his secret. Moreover, he longs to be reunited with his biological mother.
The eventful, surprise-filled climax of Schlomos journey centers on the reconciliation of these particular sufferings, and his bold actions toward healing.
As the above detailed contents show, “Live and Become” is an aptly titled film whose elevant messages go beyond its particulatr political context.