James' Journey to Jerusalem Reviews
At the beginning of the film, an Israeli immigration officer (Yael Levental) tells James (Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe) that she has heard his claim--that meeting her, an actual Israeli Jew like in the Bible, is a great joy to him--thousands of times. She does not believe it; experience gives her no reason to believe it. Young men like James are in Israel, here Tel Aviv, to make money and lots of it. She tells him that there are many other places he could go to do so, and why is it always Israel? Her experiences have convinced her that no one claiming pilgrimage who is an illegal immigrant is actually on one, that she should have no reason to believe they are. James burns with zeal, and he wears a large cross, but to her, he is just one more man across the desk trying to use piety as a dodge.
James is from a small village in Africa. He has agreed to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and then return to be a pastor to his village. It is his duty to his people. Only he gets busted by immigration in Tel Aviv first. He gets put into a lockup with other men from around the world, all of whom have come to Israel for one reason or another, and it's probably true that it's money for a lot of them. Either way, however, he is chosen by Shimi Shabati (Salim Dau) to be released and come work for him as a house cleaner. Shimi has a deal going with a man who helps run the jail, apparently, and he chooses James because James looks trustworthy or something. While James is there, he rapidly loses interest in pilgrimage and gains it in money, starting his own secret business on the side, undercutting Shimi's prices.
Of course, there are the obligatory moments where James is shown to become what he does not wish to be, but the most important one is also the most subtle. No mention is made by anyone of the fact that, by the end of the movie, James no longer wears his cross. Oh, it's a big deal when he yells at Sallah (Arieh Elias), Shimi's father, and it's a big deal when he uses the same words to a former friend that Shimi uses to him. However, no one comments on the cross. Indeed, I'm not sure when he stopped wearing it. Midway through the movie, he has the choice between completing his pilgrimage and making more money; it is possible that this is the moment when he takes off the cross, but if it is, I missed it. The point is, he leaves his village for a quest which he then loses the trail of, and we may not even notice the first steps aside.
The fact is, James is an innocent at first. It was Shibe's first movie, and it was an excellent choice to cast an unknown. At first, he even declines his pay so that he may pay of his debts faster and make his pilgrimage and return home. We know, however, that he stays in Tel Aviv for at least a couple of months before the climax of the movie. He is there long enough to bring Sallah's garden from a barren patch of weeds to a real showpiece, somewhere actually worth visiting. You can see sitting out there. He tells Sallah that he is a farmer, but by the end, he is not doing the work himself but instead hiring it done so he can make even more money. James's naďveté is a little overdone at the beginning of the movie, I think to throw his later worldliness into sharper contrast. It is to Shibe's credit that he manages to pull it off.
There are many things to be noted about James, Shimi, Sallah, the background characters. I have seen mention made of the idea that Shimi's attitude seems drawn from the worst possible stereotypes, but honestly, you would be able to find him in any country, even James's own. Shimi is trying to get ahead, and he does it by taking advantage of those around him. Doubtless the world holds many Shimis, and the fact that he is a Jewish stereotype does not mean that he isn't a reasonable character to present here. After all, James himself begins to fit the stereotype by the end of the film. At the beginning, he had been coming to know and love Sallah, helping the man break out of a crusty shell which had probably been building up around him since the death of his wife. By the end, he might as well be putting it back in place by himself. It has nothing to do with ethnic heritage; it has to do with attitude. Wealth, or the prospect of it, is corrupting James, the point being that it could just as easily corrupt any of us.
Israel of today is somewhat different from what the deeply-religious James, and the people from his village, could ever imagine. Upon landing, James is detained by the border police, which does not believe his claim to be a pilgrim and suspects him to try to enter the country in order to work illegally. James is thrown into a detention centre for illegal immigrants, awaiting his deportation.
While praying in his sordid cell to God to allow him to complete his mission, a miracle occurs. A mysterious stranger posts bail for him. But very soon it turns out that his saviour is no other than a human trafficker, who bails out detained migrants in order to expolit them in hard work.
James adapts quickly, and the film goes about how the naive, deeply-religious country boy learns the cruel economic realms of modern Israel (or for that matter - of any capitalistic system). Eventually, from being exploited, he learns out to exploit others. He leanrs an important lesson: if you want to thrieve - don't work hard. Make others work harder for you. Or in contemporary Hebrew - Don't be a "frayer".