- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 25, 2004

Is it possible that the exile, particularly the illegal alien or displaced person, is being rediscovered as a movie protagonist?

“Dirty Pretty Things” emerged as a stirring update on the theme last year, while “Beyond Borders” made a conspicuous botch of the opportunity to be comparably sympathetic or edifying. Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks will chime in later this year with “The Terminal,” a topical drama about an East European who becomes a man without a country while stranded at an American airport.

The management of Visions Cinema seems alert to the possibilities. Their booking of the documentary feature, “Lost Boys of Sudan,” is now followed by a fictional import about a Lost Boy of South African origins, the central character of an Israeli feature titled, “James’ Journey to Jerusalem.” A muck-raking account of culture shock and labor exploitation in a setting that may take art-house patrons by surprise, the movie observes the disillusioning odyssey of a pious pilgrim.

Intending to visit the holy city on behalf of his village, the title character is detained for passport irregularities that are never adequately explained. While lingering in custody, he is “rescued” by an opportunistic benefactor named Shimi, a black market labor hustler who is permitted to pay James’ bail and shunt him into a condition of indentured servitude in Tel Aviv.

James (Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe) is obliged to fetch and carry for various customers, while dormed with several African men in a similar legal and economic limbo. Shimi (Salim Daw) appears to reward them with a pocket money stipend that he considers generous, reserving a larger chunk of their wages for himself and, presumably, the overhead entailed in sustaining a crooked employment service.

Quite a few sociological points are never clarified during the cynical course of “James’ Journey,” which takes an obvious hard-boiled pride in keeping Jerusalem just out of the reach of its bewildered but industrious and aspiring hero. The budget doesn’t seem to permit an introductory sequence that would actually establish James in his birthplace. Instead, title illustrations and the music track are counted on to evoke Africa. James begins attending an Assembly of God congregation of fellow immigrants in Tel Aviv, but there’s no indication that anyone takes an interest in his specific plight, or might have heard of a Legal Aid society that specializes in the snares awaiting detainees.

The scenario does have more dramatic shape than movies often demonstrate these days, and the central performances are sharply etched. An ironic rags-to-misleading-affluence fable, the film observes James becoming a kind of favorite with Shimi, who finds him especially useful as a baby sitter and handyman for his hostile old father Salah (Arie Elias), vegetating on a lot that Shimi is avid to sell to a developer.

Seizing an opportunity that comes with the treacherous territory, James begins operating a clandestine labor network of his own within the Shimi apparatus. A movie with a sunnier disposition might reward James with an escape route as a consequence of this well-earned deception. Since the fix is in, taking the initiative earns James only further disillusion and a possibly consoling deportation.

Although most of the dialogue is in English, the importers go with a subtitled policy that covers every spoken word — English, Zulu and Hebrew. Again, you’re not sure if this is really the area in which generosity is essential. The filmmakers have more in common with Shimi than they seem to appreciate when it comes to misreading priorities.

**

TITLE: “James’ Journey to Jerusalem”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (Adult subject matter, consistent with the R category — occasional profanity and allusions to racial animosity; thematic emphasis on criminal exploitation)

CREDITS: Directed by Ra’anan Alexandrowicz. Screenplay by Mr. Alexandrowicz and Sami Duanias. Cinematography by Shau De-Mayo. Some dialogue in Zulu and Hebrew with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 87 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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