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Photograph By Yoni Hamenahem

Crossing Cultures: James (Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe, left) and Salah (Arie Elias) forge an unlikely bond in'James' Journey to Jerusalem.'

The Frayer

The San Jose Jewish Film Festival screens a modern Candide tale in 'James' Journey to Jerusalem'

By Richard von Busack

THE TERM "Holy City" is an oxymoron, like military intelligence and jumbo shrimp. In The Devil's Dictionary, arch blasphemer and former Los Gatos resident Ambrose Bierce cited the following verse by the somehow-forgotten poet Dumbo Omohundro as an aid to tell the difference between the holy and unholy: "All things are either sacred or profane/ The former to ecclesiasts bring gain/ The latter to the devil appertain." The unwary can be in for bad times in a supposedly hallowed land, whether it's Zion or Northern California.

James' Journey to Jerusalem, a 2003 Israeli fable by Ra'anan Alexdranowicz, plays a one-night stand at the San Jose Jewish Film Festival this Sunday, and the one certain reason to see it is an African actor named Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe, who plays the innocent James. Shibe has the air of a true star: "someone who has a secret," as director George Cukor once said, summing up star quality, and in this African newcomer is a seemingly irreconcilable combination of covertness and openness that makes him so much fun to watch.

James, a minister, with a gorgeous yellow dashiki and a dazzling smile, is a visitor from the village of Entshongwei, sent to the holy city of Jerusalem on a pilgrimage. Unfortunately, he only gets as far as jail. James is rescued by Shimi (Solim Daw, who has the unfortunate combo of a unibrow and a comb-over). The Israeli Shimi is a contractor who indentures under-the-table foreign laborers. With one hand, Shimi doles out a tiny amount of pay; with the other, he clutches the workers' passports.

It seems as if James' honesty and charisma will keep him afloat, even while working for Shimi. Shimi's wife and her friends like James, although they consider him an exotic two-legged pet. The minister is promoted from washing dishes to taking care of the boss's ornery old father, Salah (Arie Elias), the one man the hustling Shimi can't get the better of.

Salah owns the last unbulldozed house on a block of concrete towers, and the developers want his land badly. In the back of Salah's shack is a feral garden in which he suns himself, playing backgammon with his cronies. The old man hardly melts over his new servant, but Salah does feel as though he has something more in common with the African than he does with the younger generation: "All he thinks about is the Bible and work. He's a Zionist, like in the old days." And James shows a sign of divine favor, a quirky one: he exists in such a state of grace that every time he throws dice for the old man's backgammon board, the cubes come up boxcars.

Salah teaches James an all-important Hebrew word for the newly arrived to Israel: "Don't be a frayer," he tells James, explaining that a "frayer" is a sucker. To the profane old Salah, James' Lord Jesus was just another frayer. "Look what they did to them," he says, holding out his scarecrow arms in a crucified pose.

The sarcastic appeal of the movie is that the old man is the only one who has a dim vision of what the Holy Land was supposed to be about. Everyone else is going so crazy trying to make a living—or else enjoying the Little America of the local shopping mall—that the sacred ideal of Jerusalem has slipped their minds. Jerusalem is fewer than 100 miles away from the unlovely Tijuana-like tenement in Tel Aviv where James is stuck working his life away. But the obstacles keep popping up; James almost loses his soul before he gets a glimpse of his City of God.

Alexandrowicz humanizes some sometimes unlikable characters, such as the grasping Shimi. Still, that doesn't prevent them from doing something particularly mean, even after you've started to get used to their greed or racism. We probably prefer Salah to every Tel Aviv citizen in the movie because of his stubbornness, particularly in the face of his no-good son and his conniving wife. But Salah is never really a codger in the old-movie sense: he can be quite malicious. Some elderly Jewish actors give a sense of being descended from a hundred generations of impossible old men, and Elias is one such.

This Billy Wilder-like salute to the fleecing of newcomers in an ancient land has been dismissed as a cinematic attack on Israel. James' Journey to Jerusalem isn't that simple. For example, the mall scenes aren't about how tawdry Israel is—Alexandrowicz records the small-town visitor's honest pleasure in the market place, and the director evinces a genuine affection for the native bluntness and sarcasm of his nation. The ending, too, is a kind of triumph; faith is worthless unless it is tested, and James comes out of his ordeal with his faith intact.


James' Journey to Jerusalem (Unrated; 87 min.), directed by Ra'anan Alexandrowicz, written by Alexandrowicz and Sami Duaniag, photographed by Shark (Sharon) De Mayo and starring Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe and Arie Elias, plays Sunday (Nov. 7) at 5:30pm at Camera 12 in San Jose (www.sjjff.org).


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From the November 3-9, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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