This year it's Darfur, Kenya, Congo and the Sudan; two decades ago it was Ethiopia, among other countries. Disaster and warfare in Africa are regular as rain, making this drama of a nine-year-old boy in the Ethiopian-Jewish exodus of 1984 feel, despairingly, both timeless and topical.

Spanning several years and three actors in the central role, the primarily French and Israeli feature Live and Become, originally released overseas in 2005, takes off from the latter country's Operation Moses, a large-scale airlift of famine-stricken Ethiopian Jews from Sudanese refugee camps, and on to Israel where they would resettle. It sounds all warm-and-fuzzy humanitarian, but the thousands of Falashas, as these Africans were called, often got a less-than-welcoming reception in the Holy Land. Coming as it did from a historically oppressed people, the bigotry and anti-Falasha demonstrations stank of hypocrisy and racism. For the young boy called Solomon, or, in Hebrew, Schlomo (Moshe Agazai), the situation is as ironic as it is oppressive: He's not even really Jewish, but given to the rescuers by his desperate mother (Meki Shibru Sivan) after a genuine Falasha woman (Mimi Abonesh Kebebe) lets the boy adopt her dead son's identity.

Separated from his mother for what seems like for good, Schlomo--who can never reveal the truth lest he be returned to near-certain death--finds himself adopted by a caring family: mom Yael (Yael Abecassis), dad Yoram (Roschdy Zem) and their two natural children. Thrust into a fast and confusing world, where his only emotional guidewire is his biological mother's last words to him--"Go, live and become"--Schlomo learns French and Hebrew, has his bar mitzvah, spends a summer at a kibbutz, and goes through the motions of life, but doesn't really live. His life is an act--a play without a script.

The movie itself is scripted, but has a natural, improvisational feel supplemented by period news reports. Director Radu Mihaileanu, a Romanian Jew who studied film in Paris and whose 1998 feature Train of Life was set in a World War II Jewish shtetl, never injects artificial drama. Issues of identity take center-stage, culminating in whether Schlomo will tell his red-haired, lily-white Israeli bride, Sarah (Roni Hadar), the truth about his non-Jewishness.

Earnest and overlong, the result is a meandering short story of a movie that, for all its good intentions and occasional insights, doesn't gel. Agazai is adequate but uncharismatic; Mosche Abebe as his teenage self fares better, but the Milli Vanilli-looking adult version (Sirak M. Sabahat) is a plastic mannequin. When a character is onscreen for virtually the entire movie, the casting matters.