by Shari L. Rosenblum
USHPIZIN. OOSH-piz-in. The odd sounding title – an Aramaic word roughly translating to “holy strangers, or holy guests” – heads a film odd only in that its voice is not more often heard. A tale of orthodoxy that neither judges nor preaches. A tale of faith and redemption familiar in its principles, foreign in its formation. A world that speaks softly to us of its differences, and reminds us how like it we are. A comedy with a heart; a drama of the unique with a dash of the universal.
Ushpizin comes out of Israel, but it is something more than an Israeli film. It is no apologia, and it does not apologize. It does not treat of governments or land, does not trade convictions for peace, does not sacrifice the hopes of generations for the artistry of despair. There is no directorial motive screaming out from behind the camera in echoes of Flavius Josephus. In any other context, it might even be called apolitical. But rolling out on our shores in these days, where the religious and the secular are again pitched against each other (as they have been for so long in Israel), and Christianity is so much in the fore, a film about Jewishness and God feels striking in its political derring-do.
Written by Shuli Rand (Words), an actor who gave up the stage and cinema when he gave himself over to Bratslav Hasidism, approved by his rabbi and filmed by his friend, secular director Gidi Dar, with permission, in Jerusalem’s orthodox enclave, Mea Shearim, entirely in accordance with Jewish law, Ushpizin is a film that believes not only in God, but in miracles.
It is the night before the night before Sukkot, the holiday of the fall harvest, where the observant still commemorate the passage of the Jews from Egypt by building make-shift living spaces (huts or sukkahs, sukkot) in which they live and eat, as their ancestors did in the desert, and sharing their table with holy guests, known as ushpizin. In this way, they remind themselves that our passage, here too, is temporary, that whatever bricks or steel we use to cover our quarters, God is the only shelter on which we can or should rely. In this way they remind themselves that whatever we get from God, we are blessed to share. But Moshe Bellanga (Rand) and his wife, Malli (Michal Bat Sheva Rand), seem to have little for which to be thankful. They have neither money for rent nor wherewithal to build a sukkah—and nagging at the back of both of their brains, they have not been able to produce a child. Recently converted to orthodoxy, they struggle with their fate and with the faith they are training themselves to hold on to. As they sit, sad and distraught, Moshe shares with Malli something he heard in his studies: if something is lacking, the rabbi said, it means one of two things: either no one prayed, or no one prayed hard enough. Beautiful, no? he asks her. Beautiful, she says, discouraged, but her eyes alight as she looks into his face, inspired by the hope that comes with the possibility of prayer.
And just like that, this film about religion and circumstance becomes first and foremost a film about love. Michal Bat Sheva Rand is Shuli Rand’s real-life spouse, and not a professional actress at all, despite her obvious knack for it. By religious proscription, the film never shows the couple touch. Yet as they navigate their doubts and fears, the worry that their childlessness will force their separation under religious law, the camera catches in her gaze, in his voice, in the way they move around each other, the essence of what it is that puts the magic into life. They get their strength to believe from their belief in each other. Love has rarely been so perfectly portrayed. But their strength is tested, even as God rewards them bit by bit.
As it is with such things, and with movies about them, with prayer comes what’s prayed for. In this case, a sukkah, though not without its catches, and the well-desired guests, with even more of their own. The sukkah’s origins are not so clear, and the guests that appear miraculously at its door are not quite the blessing for which the couple might have hoped. From the wrong side of town, the wrong side of heaven, Eliyahu (Shaul Mizrahi) (named for a guest from a different Jewish feast) and Yossef (Ilan Ganani) (namesake of one of the seven holy Ushpizin) come with something other than God’s goodness on their minds. A random sukkah in a closed off community is the perfect hideout for the man on the run, and Eliyahu, who knew Moshe before the change, before he found God, is counting on the man’s darker soul to keep them safely hidden. Disdainful of the orthodox, and unpersuaded by Moshe’s claim to conversion, the unrelenting ushpizin taunt Moshe and Malli with heavy drink and unwholesome memory. Their attitude makes us uncertain; the film taunts us with the menace of danger lurking. A broken bottle, meat cooking on an open grill, a cash cache espied—each becomes a provocation, and each provocation becomes a test. Has Moshe really changed, we begin to ask ourselves. Is it possible for a man to change? Is wanting to enough? (the question here is asked and answered far more hopefully than in Cronenberg’s History of Violence, where family takes the place of God, and life leaves no option to choose both at once).
This is still the world seen from the other side in films like Kadosh (Amos Gitai) and A Price Above Rubies (Boaz Yakin); and Dar and Rand make no justifications, no excuses for it. The film does not ask us to applaud Moshe and Malli’s acceptance of a will contrary to our own, to share their view of God. But it does invite us to engage it with them. Wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles, it raises no angers. Though perhaps not deep or deliberate in the ways of film greatness, I must confess that there is a surprise for any filmgoer (especially one resolute in one’s differences from the film’s underlying philosophies) in its paradox of a closed society that opens itself to us so sweetly and so trustingly. A surprise in the comfort that it gives us. The ease with which it helps us pass its 90 minute space. It knows we are no more than temporary visitors, just passing through its chosen gates, and yet like the sukkah at its center, it welcomes us most warmly. Embracing us (even from its distance) like honored ushpizin.
©2005 Shari L. Rosenblum