In 1985 in a crowded refugee camp in Sudan, a nine-year-old boy's mother watches as another woman's son dies in her arms. She knows that this is her one and only chance to save her son, a Christian. She takes him aside and tells him to: "Go. Live. Become." Tears fill his eyes for he does not understand why she wants him to leave her side. But he obeys and begins a journey that will take him to faraway places and experiences beyond the day-by-day survival he's known at the refugee camp. The woman who lost her son agrees to become his surrogate mother and together they board a jet plane provided by Mossad that will take thousands of starving and persecuted Ethiopian Jews to Israel to be integrated into that society.
The Christian boy takes the name of Schlomo (Moshe Agazai). His his surrogate mother tells him to keep his true identity a secret: if it is discovered that he is not Jewish, he will be sent back to Sudan. Just when he begins to think this new life will be good for him, she dies of tuberculosis. Schlomo plunges into a period of depression and violence in an orphanage. He turns out to be an excellent student who learns Hebrew easily. In the evenings, the lonely boy communes with his birth mother, sensing her nurturing presence is in the light of the moon.
The authorities decide to put Schlomo up for adoption and he finds a new family with a liberal, French-Israeli couple Yael (Yael Abecassis) and Yoram (Roschdy Zem). He bonds with his foster mother, a passionate and patient woman willing to endure his refusal to eat much and his shyness. But Yael loses it when the school's principal wants to kick Schlomo out because prejudiced parents are convinced that he will lower the standards of education and are worried about him transmitting diseases to their children. His foster father defends Schlomo from some fundamental clerics who want to ritually cleanse Ethiopian men and boys.
Live and Become is a powerful and engaging film. Director Radu Mihaileanu ambitiously tackles themes of identity and love as reflected in the racial, social, political, and religious problems of immigration and assimilation. In his struggle to survive in Israel, Schlomo (Mosche Abede as teenager, Sirak M. Sabahat as a young man) finds many allies beyond his parents. His grandfather (Rami Danon) provides moral support and visits him at a kibbutz that he helped found. Schlomo comes to rely upon the wisdom of an Ethiopian rabbi, Qes Amhra (Yitzhak Edgar), who meets with him regularly and counsels him when he enters a debate and comes up with a spiritual interpretation of the skin-color of Adam. At a turning point in his life, Schlomo encounters a tolerant and positive-minded policeman who admonishes him to rebuff those who would deny his dignity and human rights.
The filmmaker does a masterful job conveying the guilt this Christian Ethiopian bears for living a lie. But he is carried by the nurturing love of four women: his birth mother, his surrogate mother, his foster mother, and Sarah (Roni Hadar), a feisty young woman who pursues him for ten years before they marry. The closing scenes in Live and Become are poignant because they deal with Schlomo's final coming to terms with his past and his own special gifts to the world.