One man's pilgrimage

An African man gets trapped in an indentured-servant ring.

'James' Journey to Jerusalem" has me thinking, for the trillionth time, about multiculturalism in the movies.

Hollywood occasionally nods toward cultural inclusiveness, and the just concluded Oscar race generated headlines by giving nominations to international talents like Shohreh Aghdashloo, Ken Watanabe, and Keisha Castle-Hughes, even though none of them won.

But these nominations made news precisely because such a wide-ranging outlook is rare for the American movie biz. Its releases are usually all-American in almost every sense.

While other countries can be equally parochial, there's a growing number of international filmmakers who find artistic stimulation - and entertainment value - in the ways people from different cultures understand, misunderstand, and interact with one another. "James' Journey to Jerusalem," a new comedy-drama from Israel, illustrates this nicely.

The title character, a young African man, is making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem on behalf of the small, undeveloped village he hails from.

James's neighbors are sponsoring the journey as a sort of spiritual training exercise for the youthful Christian, expecting him to return with valuable new wisdom and inspiration.

Israel has changed since the biblical times they've read about, though. No sooner has James's plane landed than he's whisked into jail, seen as a suspicious immigrant looking for an illicit job.

Then he's sprung from his cell by a stranger who promises to support him - not revealing that he works for a sort of indentured-servant ring, sheltering homeless immigrants in return for labor at menial jobs. If the story ended here, it would be a well-acted but oversimplified tale of economic exploitation in the global age. What gives it an unsettling edge is James's realization that he can play this game too, subcontracting fellow laborers for jobs their bosses don't know about.

Is he a clever hero, a budding sneak, or something in between? Can his religious idealism prosper in a world that revolves around money, putting profits before prophets every chance it gets? And will poor James finally reach Jerusalem, or will pitfalls and temptations keep him from ever reaching it?

"James' Journey to Jerusalem" isn't glossy, but it has a thought-provoking mix of skepticism, hopefulness, and respect for all but its most scurrilous characters. Hollywood could learn from its canny blending of psychological and multicultural insights.

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