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  • PG
  • Drama
  • 2004
  • 93 mins

Ushpizin

Ushpizin

Synopsis

Faith is tested, love is affirmed and miracles (seem to) happen as an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community is viewed from the inside out in Gidi Dar's contemporary parable

About

Near the middle of Ushpizin, Moshe Bellanga (Rand) offers up a prayer to He "who separates the secular from the sacred" - but in fact the film presents a committed marriage between the holy and the profane that is without precedent in Israeli cinema. Once a prominent theatre actor, Rand starred in Gidi Dar's feature debut Eddie King (1992), before turning to devout Orthodoxy in 1996. Ushpizin, which Rand also wrote, not only marks his first return to cinema in eight years, but is also the first ever collaborative feature made by an ultra-Orthodox cast and a secular crew (including Dar himself).

Like Rand, Moshe is a 'baal teshuva' - someone who has repented his sins and returned to Jewish Orthodoxy. Unfortunately he is also down on his luck in the lead-up to the joyous seven-day festival of Succot, unable to afford a 'succah' (outdoor shack) or any of the other religious paraphernalia required for proper observance of the holiday. Through a series of coincidences (or are they divine miracles?) Moshe and his wife Malli (Michal Bath-Sheva Rand) receive in rapid succession an abandoned shack, an unexpected cash windfall, and a pair of 'ushpizin' (or 'holy guests'), considered a blessing during the festival.

Far from being holy, Eliyahu Scorpio (Shaul Mizrahi) and his friend Yossef (Iban Ganani) are criminals recently escaped from prison, and as their disrespectful antics drive a wedge between their hosts, Moshe's faith in the benevolence of his deity is tested to its limits - until, that is, he receives one final blessing.

A one-time criminal protagonist struggling to stay on the path of righteousness; a wife trying to conceive; the disruptive arrival of two fugitives: if Ushpizin bears at least a superficial resemblance to Raising Arizona, it also, like the Coen brothers' film, treats a generally maligned community with unusual respect and affection.

Like the Coens' larcenous rednecks, Gidi Dar's ultra-Orthodox Hassidim, though somewhat larger than life and prone to neurotic mood swings, are never subjected to the director's ridicule, but are shown as complex human beings united by a simple faith. At the same time, in something like the Jewish counterpart to Jesus Of Montreal, these characters perform a modern masque of the most ancient Pentateuchal stories (in particular that of childless Abraham and Sarah visited by angels), so that the tales of the Old Testament are seen to have their spiritual place in a new Jerusalem.

The film's direct camerawork throws into relief the humanism of Rand's rich characters. When Rand refused on religious grounds to appear in the film with any other woman besides his own real-life wife, Dar took a considerable risk in casting Michal Bath-Sheva Rand as Malli, even though she had never previously acted. Yet this leap of faith has brought its own rewards, for seldom has a married couple been portrayed with such subtle yet palpable chemistry.

If anything, it is only the two escapees who come close to being stereotypes, with their present (and Moshe's past) criminality standing in for the unrepentant status of all non-practising Jews, at least from the point of view of the Orthodox. Yet even these two men, and the secularism that they embody, are readily accommodated in this carnivalesque fable of hospitality and hope amongst the Hassidim.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Shaul Mizrahi, Ilan Ganani, Avraham Abutboul, Shuli Rand, Daniel Dayan, Michal Bat-Sheva Rand, Yonathan Danino
  • Director: Gidi Dar
  • Screen Writer: Shuli Rand
  • Producer: Gidi Dar, Rafi Bukai
  • Photographer: Amit Yasur
  • Composer: Nethaniel Mechaly, Iosif Bardanashvili, Adi Ran

In a nutshell

Dryly funny and richly humane, Ushpizin marries biblical simplicity to secular banality to depict an everyday miracle of devotion rewarded.

by Anton Bitel

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