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Originally published Friday, March 28, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

Israeli history as seen by a refugee in "Live and Become"

"Ambitious" doesn't begin to describe "Live and Become," a 140-minute sweep through two decades of Israel's history as told through the...

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

"Live and Become," with Moshe Agazai, Yaël Abecassis, Roschdy Zem, Mosche Abebe, Sirak M. Sabahat, Yitzhak Edgar. Directed by Radu Mihaileanu, from a screenplay by Mihaileanu and Alain-Michel Blanc. Not rated; suitable for teens and up. 140 minutes. In Amharic, Hebrew and French, with English subtitles. Varsity.

"Ambitious" doesn't begin to describe "Live and Become," a 140-minute sweep through two decades of Israel's history as told through the experiences of an Ethiopian boy passing as a Jew.

The extraordinary story, co-written by Romanian director Radu Mihaileanu ("Train of Life"), begins with Israel's clandestine 1985 airlift of thousands of Falasha — Ethiopian Jews — from oppression at home and hard times in Sudanese refugee camps. At one such camp, a Jewish boy dies and an unnamed Christian lad (Moshe Agazai) secretly takes his place on the journey to Israel.

The child leaves behind, with great sorrow, a mother who commands him to "live and become" — to make the most of his new life. Thrust into an alien culture and religious traditions in Israel that are not his own, the shellshocked boy, renamed Schlomo, at first rebels against his circumstances. Immigration authorities place him with a pair of kind and liberal parents (Yaël Abecassis, Roschdy Zem) who fiercely protect him against racism and intermittent backlashes against the Falasha community.

From there, "Live and Become" anchors epochal events in Israel — the impact of the Gulf War, the first and second intifadas, the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin — through the ennobling saga of Schlomo's frequently sabotaged efforts to fit in. (The adolescent Schlomo is played by Mosche Abebe. Sirak M. Sabahat plays him as a young man. All three actors are superb.)

A tantalizing hint of formalism surrounds Mihaileanu's direction of the film's earliest scenes, particularly Schlomo's painful and largely wordless departure from his mother. For a while, it looks like "Live and Become" might be a visionary epic with slightly operatic leanings — an exciting idea that could convey the feeling of memory or transcendence.

The film, however, doesn't quite work out that way; it proves resolutely earthbound. But it is never less than transfixing as a vivid story of a spiritually stateless character who survives his confusion by exceeding everyone's expectations — as an intellect as well as an exemplary (if not actual) Jew. Schlomo's secret life, writing letters to his mother with the help of a Falasha leader (a soulful performance by Yitzhak Edgar), adds texture and a touch of exotica to the young man's divided life.

And don't be put off by the film's length. It's fascinating to see familiar history flash by as a backdrop to the equally compelling account of a life spent in pursuit of totality.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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