The title character of the gently bittersweet Israeli drama James' Journey to Jerusalem, written and directed by Ra'anan Alexandrowicz, doesn't look Jewish at all, but only because he isn't: James (Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe), who dresses in his African culture's multi-colored robes, and who wears his hair in small braids, is a farmer from the village of Entshongweni, which has sent him on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land on its behalf, after which he'll return to become its pastor.
He's a handsome young Zulu of devout Christian reverence, fluent in English and so indomitable in spirit that it trumps his naïveté. When he arrives in Israel, he's mistaken for a migrant worker and placed in jail. Soon he's sprung by Shimi, a benevolent (if churlish) taskmaster, who forces him into labor and pays him well for doing it. James rejects the money at first, quoting the parable of the rich man and the eye of the needle. ("Jesus, king of the jungle," Shimi brands him.) So James' friend Skomboze, another African, takes him on an American-style spree in a neon-bright shopping mall. "As it was written," Skomboze tells him, "a land of milk and honey."
As James' life of profitable servitude continues, Alexandrowicz's scruffy-looking film explores a very anxious, very human microcosm of Israeli life. It's not prettified, and it's not a cross section: James takes profitable cleaning jobs on the side from Shimi's idle sister and her friends, while his weekday job has him working as the servant/gardener to Shimi's cantankerous father, who calls him "Reverend" (or "blackie"), and who teaches him not to be a "frayer" (pushover), a lesson that James eventually learns well.
But his entrepreneurship really doesn't get him very far, and when he finally makes it to Jerusalem in a way he hadn't imagined, he's still delighted to see it, even if he's considerably more than a stone's throw away.
Alexandrowicz sprinkles his soundtrack with an uplifting tune he wrote about what Jerusalem represents to James' village. He sets his lyrics to Ghanian folk music, and it's performed throughout the film by a crisp harmonious choir of African voices. "Jerusalem, you are our own destiny," they sing in the pre-title sequence, which visualizes James' story in a series of impressionistic paintings.
Alexandrowicz's little parable seems to reflect on Israel's struggle with cultural diversity and ecumenism, and it reminds us of what we should already know: that Jerusalem is many things to many people, and not just the crux of Israeli/Jewish identity. His movie probably has deeper resonance for Israeli audiences, and at times it feels rather more precious than necessary. Still, it's certainly unique, and that alone wins it half a star. In Hebrew, Zulu and English, with subtitles.