September 9, 2004

Cornell Cinema

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Like its title character, James” Journey to Jerusalem is an earnest tale of hope that addresses the inherent cynicism and materialistic drive of the modern world. Director Ra”anan Alexandrowicz”s film is one of discovery and education, although both concepts are realized through less than conventional methods.

James (Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe) journeys from Africa to Israel as a religious pilgrim seeking to visit Jerusalem. After an immigration official denies his request, James is forced into prison. Sent by his village, James is na*ve in the ways of the world and his trusting nature eventually lands him in a crowded apartment among other immigrants. This apartment is owned by Shimi (Salim Daw), who hires out the occupants as cleaners, a process that results in high profits for Shimi and low returns for his workers. Initially, James is undeterred by hardships and firmly resolves to visit Jerusalem. As time wears on, however, James becomes more and more familiar with the workings of the modern world, a phenomenon that causes him to lose sight of his original purpose.

Alexandrowicz”s film is packaged with multiple layers of events that exemplify the film”s main driving point. For example, the contrast that results from James” initial morality and Shimi”s greed reflects the movie”s attempt to highlight the evils of a materialistic lifestyle. Constructed almost like a folktale, James” Journey indeed traces the trials and tribulations of one young man as he travels through strange surroundings and is exposed to foreign customs. It even comes with clear-cut ‘moral of the story,’ that is presented plainly and truthfully.

Influenced by Shimi”s ambitious drive and the constant goading of Shimi”s father, Sallah (Arie Elias), who keeps informing James that life is about grabbing what”s right there in front of you with no fear of how it will affect others, James begins to slide into the capitalist”s mindset of anything for profit. Soon, he is the one spouting off about the importance of material wealth and all thoughts of Jerusalem are seemingly abandoned.

Alexandrowicz”s visual presentation of James” transformation is distinctive and effective. James” various outings to modern shopping malls are presented as montages of happiness where he gazes adoringly at the countless floors of stores and products. These sequences are always filmed, however, with James surrounded by the bright glass windows of stores or elevators, a constant reminder of just how transparent the world of material happiness is. Shibe”s portrayal of James is always convincing, especially in terms of his character”s slow transformation into a cynical profiteer. Shibe initially plays James as filled with child-like wonder, amazed at the world, always polite, and readily trusting. Outfitted in the native clothing of his village and armed with only a single suitcase, this James is undoubtedly a stranger to the world of materialism. With gradual progression, however, James exhibits less and less unaltered kindness, while at the same time becoming outfitted in more and more modern clothes.

Before long, James has constructed his own team of workers behind Shimi”s back and becomes an active participant in the capitalist system that had once been so foreign to him. Dressed in slick suits and shouting into his cell phone, James is almost unrecognizable near the latter half of the movie, submerged in the culture of materialism. Can this lost individual find his way back? Alexandrowicz answers this question indirectly.

James” Journey is an examination of consequences that result from modern, material culture. Following James through his journey of discovery also changes our mindset, causing us to question the various contemporary conventions that we accept without doubt.

Archived article by Zach Jones