Zrubavel -- Film Review

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TAORMINA, Sicily -- Winner of the Special Jury Prize at the Taormina Film Festival, "Zrubavel" has the distinction of being the first film made by an Ethiopian Israeli, newcomer Shmuel Beru, who at the age of 8 walked across the Sudanese desert to immigrate to Israel. The young television and stage actor's directorial debut tells a familiar immigrant story in an unfamiliar setting -- the little known Ethiopian Jewish community of his adopted country.

Despite being rough around the edges, "Zrubavel" has already gained other international kudos (including Best Drama at Haifa). It opens with aspiring adolescent filmmaker Yitzhak (Daniel Beru), whom everyone calls Spike Lee, introducing us to his family with a very makeshift camera. First up are his father, an Orthodox Jew who wants him to be a rabbi, and his mother, who dreams of Yitzhak becoming a soccer player.

His grandfather Gite Zrubavel (Meir Desai) was an important man back home but works as a street cleaner in Tel Aviv. Despite never having learned Hebrew, the family patriarch is fiercely patriotic.

He has already lost one son, who died a soldier in the Israeli army, yet dreams of raising the money to send his younger son Gili (Avinu Beru) to the air force academy. Or even cooking school for now, if it means keeping Gili off the streets and away from his petty criminal friends.

He cannot understand why his younger daughter Almaz (Esther Rada) loathes the idea of an arranged marriage. What's worse, she is in love with a distant cousin. A man who places tradition and dignity above all else, Gite does not easily accept these generational rifts or the moral codes of a society different from his own.

There is little interaction in "Zrubavel" between the protagonists and the white Israelis, and what there is, is blatantly racist -- especially from the police and a school principal. Unfortunately, these larger social issues are handled sophomorically, and a shooting towards the end strives for deeper political resonance but misses. It feels tagged on and unnecessarily melodramatic in a film that is most endearing and convincing when Beru sticks to the personal dramas.

"Zrubavel" nicely shows how things truly are the same the world over. The Zrubavel family could be any immigrant family trying to preserve its heritage in a new land while struggling to break through the glass ceilings of racism and minority status.

The performances are inconsistent, but Radu is a standout with her natural presence and beauty. Praise goes to her and Abathe Berihun, for the mix of modern and traditional music, some of which Radu sings live.

Almost all the film's crewmembers were Ethiopian Israelis, most of whom worked for free on the project. The resulting production standards are a little low.

Venue: Taormina Film Fest
Sales/Production company: Transfax Film Productions Ltd
Cast: Meir Desai, Avinu Beru, Esther Rada, Tamar Imla, Daniel Beru
Director/screenwriter: Shmuel Beru
Producers: Marek Rozenbaum, Itali Tamir
Director of photography: Gennady Kuchuk
Production designer: Omer Nissim
Music: Abathe Berihun, Esther Rada
Costume designer: Tassi Ashto
Editor: Reut Han, Eyal Orbach
No rating, 72 minutes
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