Ushpizin

November, 2005, Drama

Directed by:Gidi Dar

Starring:Shuli Rand, Michal Bat-Sheva Rand, Shaul Mizrahi, and Ilan Ganani

Getting an informed look inside another culture by exposure to its art provides an added benefit beyond the intrinsic value of individual works and no medium does that better than film. See enough movies from any given country and you'll experience more of what its culture offers than can be gleaned from its paintings, books or music. The reason is economic; movies rely on local mass audiences to recover their costs, and those who are willing to pay to go to the movies unconsciously demand reflections of the culture from which they spring. Audiences want to be able to identify instantly; that's why foreign language films--even the best of them--tend to find such small audiences in the U.S. (The exception to this rule is the "international film", deliberately cast with well-known actors from various countries and providing lots of expensive action sequences in the storyline.)  Thus a paradox: we live in an ever shrinking world, have access to a stunning number of foreign-made movies uniquely capable of introducing us to cultures we'll never otherwise encounter half so effectively, yet we skip over them to watch our own culture played back to us in films made in Hollywood.

Well, here's an absolutely charming way to break that bad habit. Ushpizin (the word in Hebrew for guests) is both a warm-hearted look at the ultra-conservative haredi, (in Hebrew, "one who trembles" in awe of God) community in Jerusalem and a quietly effective examination of religious faith as expressed not in theological terms, but as practiced in the lives of a middle-aged couple desperate for a son.

Moshe is a devout member of his synagogue/school, (closest in American terms to the Hasidic community) who lives in old Jerusalem with his wife Mali. They're childless, a fact which has more than a little impact on their marriage, for their religious tradition requires that Moshe "be fruitful and multiply", if not with Mari then with a new wife. To add to these tensions, the couple lacks the financial resources to properly celebrate Succoth, the Jewish harvest festival, which requires setting up a temporary residence outside one's permanent home to be used in welcoming guests during the holiday's festivities.

Moshe and Mali find their faith tested in a series of Job-like developments in which their prayers seem to be answered only by creating new situations that mock the very essence of their beliefs. A shelter is provided, along with the funds to purchase food and the guests with which to celebrate, but the results are far from what Moshe and Mali 

prayed for. Having relied on God for both direction and support, can they now turn their back on an Almighty that seems so utterly capricious? 

Veteran Israeli actor Shuli Rand, (who recently converted to orthodox Judaism) wrote the script for Ushpizin and vetted it with his rabbi before appearing in the movie. Since his new religious commitments forbid appearing in romantic roles with someone other than his actual wife, his real-life spouse (Michal Bat-Sheva Rand) joined a number of other amateurs in bringing the actor's screenplay to life.  

With its gentle good humor and warts-and-all presentation of the haredi lifestyle, Ushpizin could have easily settled for the sweet comedic style of a situation comedy, becoming an orthodox Life With Father. But Rand is after something more; a serious examination of what it means to be a person of faith. It's the confrontation with doubt that arises when things don't develop as we expect or want them to which really tests religious faith and if the challenges presented to it here are modest in their expectations, they're nevertheless sufficient to examine the meaning and significance of putting one’s trust in a higher power. 

P.S. I saw this film immediately after watching Paradise Now, the study of Palestinian suicide bombers in Nabulus, a market-city just a few miles north of Jerusalem. It's tragic to note that the worlds conveyed in these two excellent films seem located at opposite ends of the moral/political universe.  

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