USHPIZIN - *** 1/2
Reviewed by Hannah Brown,
THE JERUSALEM POST Aug. 23, 2004
Ushpizin (the title translates roughly to the "the holy guests")
has already earned its place in history.
It's the first film made by members of the ultra-Orthodox community (in
collaboration with secular filmmakers) aimed at general audiences.
Shuli Rand, a successful actor in theater and films ("Life According
to Agfa"), became ultra-Orthodox several years ago and gave up acting.
But he rethought his decision and teamed up with secular director Gidi
Dar to write the script for and act in Ushpizin.
His real-life wife, Michal Bat-Sheva Rand, a playwright, actress, and
director before she, too, turned to haredi Judaism, co-stars as his on-screen
wife. A number of actors in small parts are also members of the haredi
The religious cast and crew won certain compromises from the secular
film industry, mainly that the film will not be shown on Shabbat, as well
as one or two other points (during scenes in which characters pray, for
example, only the name "Elokim" and not the actual Hebrew word
for "G-d" is invoked, a change that holds significance for Orthodox
That's the background of the film, but it would be no more than an interesting
anecdote if the movie couldn't stand on its own merits. The good news
is that the movie is excellent, a simple story, well told, that brings
the audience into the ultra-Orthodox world but truly treats its viewers
The script doesn't harangue viewers or condescend to them. It amuses
and entertains, lets you leave at a reasonable hour, and gives you something
to think about afterwards. In short, it's a considerate host.
The film strives - and succeeds - to create the kind of atmosphere familiar
to readers of Sholom Aleichem, a slightly fantastic realism. Filmed in
and around haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem, it tells the story of Moshe
(Shuli Rand) and Mali (Michal Bat-Sheva Rand), a married couple who have
become Orthodox in the last few years and find themselves facing the Succot
holiday completely broke. The yeshiva where Moshe studies allocates money
to its students at holiday time but can't find any for him this year,
perhaps because he and Mali are, much to their sorrow, childless after
five years of marriage.
Mali awaits his return with nothing for dinner but a cabbage. She dreads
opening the door because she is afraid the landlord will show up and demand
they pay back rent.
Moshe covets an especially large and beautiful etrog to decorate their
succa, but this year they won't have any succa. They don't even have the
money for food and won't be able to fulfill the mitzva of hosting guests
(ushpizin) in their succa.
Then, by a stroke of luck, they are awarded a charitable gift of $1,000,
and their financial worries are over. Of course, it's too late to invite
guests. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, two show up. They are Eliyahu
(Shaul Mizrahi) and Yosef (Ilan Ganani), former associates from Moshe's
criminal past in Eilat. Both are inmates at a prison, who decided impulsively
to flee instead of returning from a furlough.
Now Moshe and Mali have everything, including their decidedly not holy
guests. The presence of Eliyahu and Yosef inevitably leads to conflict.
Moshe knows he should welcome them, but he doesn't trust them. He and
Mali struggle with their impulses to protect their serene way of life
on the one hand, and their religious obligation to show hospitality on
Although the script doesn't spell it out in an overly literal way, it's
clear that Moshe was an angry, violent man before his religious transformation.
Reminders of his past are disturbing, but also dangerous because he runs
the risk of being drawn back to his old violent ways. This tension gives
the movie real drama and complexity as does the film's examination of
the conflicts and compromises that are part of every life.
This description may make the film sound somber; however, it's anything
but. In fact, a lot of it plays like comedy, especially in scenes where
the convicts crank up trance music in the middle of the street, not a
way to make friends in this kind of neighborhood.
The acting is wonderful throughout. Shuli Rand gives a brilliant performance,
touching and credible. Mizrahi, who played Zohar Argov in Zohar and who
is a standout in the soon-to-open Stones, is a charismatic screen presence
as the outwardly affable con who can barely suppress his rage and violence.
Some scenes are marred slightly by a false naivet , an attitude that
often crops up when sophisticated, well-educated people make movies about
supposedly simple characters.
The ending is pat, a bit out of sync with the complexity of the rest
of the script.
But these are minor criticisms. Ushpizin is a ground-breaking, enjoyable,
and original movie that humanizes and dramatizes the haredi lifestyle.
It will surely appeal to many viewers who do not generally give this community
a second thought and will entertain as well as enlighten them.
Starring Shuli Rand, Michal Bat-Sheva Rand, Shaul Mizrahi, Ilan Ganani,
Avraham Abutboul, and Daniel Dayan.
Directed by Gidi Dar. Written by Shuli Rand. 90 minutes. Hebrew title:
Ha'ushpizin. In Hebrew with English titles.
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