"A Haredi Hit Movie"

(from www.jpost.com)


USHPIZIN - *** 1/2

Reviewed by Hannah Brown,


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 community.

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 viewers).

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 like ushpizin.

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 the other.

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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