In the field of comedies about religious pilgrimages, “James’ Journey to Jerusalem” reigns supreme. (Admittedly, I don’t know how much competition there is in this genre.) It’s a deceptively gentle social satire brimming with likable performances and smart humor, set in an idyllic non-violent version of modern-day Jerusalem.
James (Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe) is a Christian whose African tribe has sent him to the Holy City on a pilgrimage, to learn what inspiration it has to offer them. Unfortunately, the Israeli customs officials assume James is coming to the country to look for work or to steal from them, so he’s put in jail.
From there he’s rescued, in a sense, by Shimi (Salim Daw), who finds workers for a gruff contractor named Feda (Gregory Tal), who in turn sends his guys out each morning as day laborers. (It’s not unlike Fagin’s operation in “Oliver Twist,” though it is somewhat more legal.) James doesn’t like Feda’s bunkhouse rules or his authoritarianism, but he accepts that he owes Shimi a debt for getting him out of jail, so he agrees to work until he’s paid it off, and THEN he’ll continue to Jerusalem.
He gets a regular gig as gardener for Shimi’s aged, cantankerous father, Sallah (Arieh Elias). Sallah likes James for his obedience and positive attitude — a contrast to his own son, who is trying to buy the old man’s property out from under him. Sallah also likes that James can consistently roll double sixes in backgammon, a fact that he uses to his advantage whenever friends come over to play and there is a wager is involved. (Sallah claims he has hurt his arm and must use James as his designated roller.)
What happens to James on his journey to Jerusalem is that he gets sidetracked, distracted by the possibilities of making money, and also by good, honorable things like helping the local Christian congregation, which seems to be consistently in need of his aid.
Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe’s performance as James is instantly sympathetic and endearing, James’ integrity and naivete being two traits we like to see in movie characters, probably because they remind us of how we wish we were. His pairing with Arieh Elias as old Sallah is one of the film’s most delightful aspects, and this is a film brimming with delightful aspects.
So does James ever get to Jerusalem? I won’t tell you. But I will say the ending is a surprise, and a funny one at that.
B+ (1 hr., 27 min.; Hebrew and Zulu with subtitles; )