On the road to Zion, a pilgrim is tested
“James’ Journey to Jerusalem” could be subtitled, with a nod to the visionary William Blake, “Songs of Innocence and of Experience.” Devastating and amusing in its look at how a wide-eyed idealist copes with the savage world of winner-take-all capitalism, Israeli division, it has the grace to start with, of all things, a charming song of its own.
Sung by an African chorus as opening credits unfold against a backdrop of cheerful paintings illustrating the story, the song tells of a faraway village and a young man “sent on a pilgrimage to Zion, the Promised Land, the place where our dreams live.”
That young man, the aforementioned James (charismatic South African actor Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe), his eyes bright enough to match his colorful shirt, is sent by his people to experience the Holy Land as their surrogate in preparation for a future as their preacher.
Literally agog on landing in Tel Aviv, James beams at the immigration official and asks, his voice respectful, even reverential: “Are you a Hebrew woman from God’s chosen people?” The woman is not only not impressed, she thinks James is trying to pull a fast one, trying to con her into letting him into the country so he can work illegally and make piles of money. Not on her watch.
That conflicting dynamic is at the heart of the world constructed by Israeli director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz. While James is the classic Candide-type innocent, insisting in English and his native Zulu that as “a pilgrim in the name of my village” his only goal is to see Jerusalem, the Israelis, speaking another language both literally and figuratively, cast him in their own image, and it is not pretty.
As written by the director and Sami Duenias, “James” offers an ironic yet unflinching look at some of the least idealistic, most cutthroat aspects of Israeli society. It’s a world where everyone preys on everyone else, where the hunger to get ahead drives out all other considerations, where, paradoxically, doing something illegal on the side is described as doing something “black.”
Praying for deliverance from his immigration jail cell, James is thrust into this world when he is bailed out by Shimi (Salim Daw). He’s a shady operator who shamelessly exploits foreigners by forcing them to work for his cleaning company under threat of a return to prison.
Although he makes friends with a fellow African named Skomboze (Hugh Masebenza) who shows him the ropes, James’ most poignant relationship is with Salah (Arie Elias), Shimi’s irascible father. The old man calls him Reverend and gets a kick out of the African’s clean-living habits. “All he thinks about is the Bible and work,” Salah says. “He’s a Zionist, like the good old days.”
It’s from Salah that James learns about what the film posits is the heart of the malaise that infects Israeli society, the fear of being labeled a frayer -- a dupe, a patsy, someone who gets taken advantage of. In today’s Israel, James is told, there is nothing more looked down upon than that.
“James’ Journey to Jerusalem” is best when its protagonist retains his innocence, but it is inevitable that his gradual discovery of the blandishments of capitalism, of the good things money can buy, will lead to a war for his soul. “Life here is a continuous trial,” an African minister tells James, and so it is.
Debuting feature director Alexandrowicz, previously a well-regarded documentary filmmaker, uses his background to make sure his droll, biting critique of Israeli society always comes off as realistic. And truthfully, it’s not just his own country that fits the picture. They may speak Hebrew in that particular promised land, but it is a surprisingly familiar place.
MPAA rating: Unrated.
Times guidelines: Adult subject matter.
Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe...James
Released by Zeitgeist Films. Director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz. Producer Amir Harel. Screenplay Alexandrowicz & Sami Duenias. Cinematographer Sharon [Shark] De-Mayo. Editor Ron Goldman. Costumes Maya Barsky. Music Ehud Banay with Gil Smetana & Noam Halevi. Production design Amir Dov Pick. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.
In limited release.
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