In James' Journey to Jerusalem, an enjoyable, sneaky-smart fable about the collision between innocence and experience, open-faced South African actor Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe plays James, a Christian Candide who leaves his Zulu village to visit Jerusalem before becoming a minister. But, upon reaching Israel, he's instantly tossed in the Tel Aviv slammer, and is rescued, so to speak, by a contractor, Shimi (Simon Daw), who gets him out of jail, houses him with other migrants and puts him to work doing manual labor. James soon winds up working for Shimi's curmudgeonly father, Sallah (Arie Elias), an old-school Israeli settler who refuses to sell his ramshackle house so that the property can be turned into one of the soulless apartment blocks that increasingly dot the Israeli landscape. He'd rather have a garden. The old man keeps warning the young African not to be a frayer—a Hebrew word for "patsy"—and James proves an apt pupil, gradually learning the rules of a society where everybody has an angle.
The movie is the feature debut of director Ra'anan Alexandrowicz, who co-wrote the script with Sami Duenias. He gives us an Israel that's a "godforsaken country," as one soldier terms it. Dusty, messy and casually racist—James is called "Blackie" even by those who like him—it's a Holy Land caught up in an exploitative logic that's a far cry from the ideals that created it. Here, milk and honey have become cell phones and real estate, and you get them by profiting from other people's labor. To emphasize the point, Alexandrowicz gives Tel Aviv a nasty, smeary look, as if it had been shot on waxed paper that had once held a particularly greasy falafel.
Naturally, nothing about the film's moral lesson is specific to Israel. On the contrary, characters like James have become a staple of modern filmmaking, be it the honorable Nigerian doctor caught up in an organs scam in Dirty Pretty Things, the sweet Latino gigolo in Star Maps, or the good-hearted small-town kids in Hou Hsiao-hsien's earlier classics Boys From Fengkuei and Dust in the Wind. All these decent souls taste the poison apple of modernity and know that the folks back home—like James' fellow villagers in Africa—won't understand that our present-day Jerusalems are far less holy than they used to be.
James' Journey to Jerusalem was directed by Ra'anan Alexandrowicz; written by Alexandrowicz and Sami Duenias; produced by Amir Harel; and stars Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe, Simon Dow and Arie Elias. Now playing at Regency Lido, Newport Beach.