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MOVIE REVIEW

Brave epic traces history and raises questions

``Live and Become" is an epic of ethnic and personal identity. In telling the story of a young Ethiopian boy who poses as a Jew in order to take part in the mid-1980s Israeli resettlement of the Falasha -- the lost tribe purportedly descended from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba -- the film has both panoramic sweep and small-scale focus. It opens a window on a little-known chapter of modern Israeli history.

It's also deeply and troublingly moving until, late in the game, it turns merely emotional, as if a vast saga had suddenly become a very good TV miniseries. Still, in turning over the question of what makes a person a Jew -- not to mention what makes a person belong to any society -- ``Live and Become" is worthy of attention.

Writer-director Radu Mihaileanu (``Train of Life") begins the story at a refugee camp in the Sudan, where Ethiopians have fled the war with Eritrea. Death and deprivation is everywhere, and when a Falasha woman (Mimi Abonesh Kebede) loses her son to disease, she knowingly takes another woman's young boy (Moshe Agazai) as her own. ``Go," the boy's real mother (Meskie Shibru Sivan) tells him. ``Live and become." He finds himself on the secret Mossad-organized airlift -- code-named Operation Moses -- to the Holy Land, another child's ancestry reluctantly committed to memory.

In Israel, he is quickly named Solomon, or Schlomo, and just as quickly loses his adoptive mother to tuberculosis. Oppressed with guilt and the terror of being found out, he refuses to eat. At one point he runs away, naively hoping to head south across the desert until he finds his way home.

Redemption of sorts comes when Schlomo is adopted by a French Israeli family, a non-religious clan of left-wingers who assume the boy knows his Torah better than they do. Father Yoram (Roschdy Zem) is a macho man but mother Yael (Yael Abecassis) is loving, and when the parents of the boy's schoolmates show their racist colors, she passionately assails them and wins the day.

``Live and Become" is at its most insightful and involving when it addresses the real-life struggles of the Falasha to fit into a society that only partly wants them. When conservative rabbis round up the Ethiopians to ``purify" them (by putting a drop of blood from their penises into a ritual bath), the film re-creates the real-life protests that erupted in response. As Schlomo grows into adolescence (where he's played by the lean, silent Mosche Abebe), he faces bigotry from the father (Avi Oria) of a pretty classmate (Roni Hadar) and proves his knowledge of Judaism in a Talmudic throwdown known as The Controversies.

He's not Jewish, of course, and his unceasing anxiety over his identity amplifies the usual teenage personality crisis by a factor of 10. ``Live and Become" tightens the screws on its main character while giving him an outlet in the person of a kindhearted Ethiopian rabbi (Yitzhak Edgar), who may know more than he says. Eventually we follow Schlomo into early adulthood (Sirak M. Sabahat takes over the role), where he sets his life course, comes to grips with his deception, and begins a search for his roots.

In other words, this is a movie that bites off a lot -- and, surprisingly, chews most of it. Mihaileanu interweaves two decades of Israeli current events into his story, and at its best ``Live and Become" is a richly provocative personal drama set against a complex social backdrop.

The main character remains frustratingly passive, though, and in the third act, when Schlomo's relationship with his teen sweetheart flowers into adult love, the emotions don't quite add up. At the same time, the melodramatic plotting crowds out the larger picture, leading to a four-hankie ending that feels pat. A movie that starts out big and brave ends small and heartfelt, and you can't help feeling that something has been lost on the way.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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