James is a young African from a small village making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He’s a true believer, a Christian naif whose eyes light up at just the prospect of actually seeing the holy city he’s heard about all his life. But when he arrives in Tel Aviv and is questioned by immigration, he’s assumed to be one of the many illegals who come to the country looking for work and is immediately thrown into jail. He’s soon bailed out by an unscrupulous businessman named Shimi who installs him in a seedy dormitory with other exploited day laborers.
This is the classic “small town boy comes to the big city” scenario mixed with an exposé of an aspect of Israeli life not usually seen. But the most distinctive thing about this movie is its tone, the way serious, even grim matters are treated with a fairly light touch. It starts with the film’s title, which suggests an after-school special, and is maintained by the charismatic performance of Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe James, who radiates such an intense naïveté that you know that even if the light tone is challenged, it won’t be seriously damaged.
Figuring that his trip to Jerusalem has only been postponed, James settles into his situation and proves to be an industrious worker and trustworthy enough that he’s soon working exclusively for Shimi’s aged father, Sallah. The young boy and the old coot develop a grudging relationship and it’s a testament to Shibe’s ingratiating portrayal that this central section of the film is as palatable as it is, since we’re dealing with two potentially offensive stereotypes, a miserly old Jew and a young black man who turns out to be good with dice.
James is tempted in this wicked city and partly succumbs, becoming a boss man for Shimi and running a little employment scheme on the side, but he finally manages to break free and continue on his way to Jerusalem. What he is seeking is a state of mind rather than a place on Earth, though he hasn’t learned that yet. But that revelation is outside the scope of this little fable, which skirts around its more somber issues without fully addressing them. Fortunately, it also boasts a really charming star performance which goes a long way in compensating for its reticence to probe too deeply.
In English, Hebrew and Zulu, with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday and Saturday, April 16-17, at 7 and 9:30 p.m.; and on Sunday, April 18, at 4 and 7 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].