Groundbreaking in its sympathetic insider depiction of Jewish ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem, “Ushpizin” reps the first collaborative effort between Israel’s religious and secular communities, spearheaded by thesp-scripter Shuli Rand. An enjoyable seriocomic tale of a poor couple whose holiday-time miracle becomes a test of faith, pic received the critics’ award at the Jerusalem Fest, plus best actor for Rand at the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars. An obvious winner for Jewish fests, pic’s genial warmth never feels overtly preachy, and could easily transfer to arthouse play on both U.S. coasts.
The ultra-orthodox don’t go to the movies, let alone participate in productions, so secular helmer Gidi Dar’s coup of not only using religious actors but shooting in their normally closed community was entirely due to Rand’s participation, with the agreement of his rabbi. Stipulations on release included no screenings on the Sabbath; many religious Jews illegally downloaded pic from the web rather than go to the cinema at all, leading to a rabbinical e-plea that all felonious perps should send money to the production company as compensation.
Rand plays Moshe, an impoverished ultra-Orthodox man struggling to make ends meet. Penniless on the eve of the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot, he goes to the local yeshiva charity but is told there are no more funds to go around. His wife Mali (Rand’s real-life wife Michal Bat Sheva Rand) accuses Moshe of not standing up for himself, and they both fervently pray for a miracle.
The miracle comes in the unexpected arrival of $1,000, left over from the yeshiva fund. For Moshe and Mali this is a gift from God, possibly also signaling an end to her years of barrenness. Now they can construct the sukkah, the tradi-tional open-air holiday structure where religious Jews have meals and welcome guests (“ushpizin” is Aramaic for guests).
Out of the blue arrives Eliahu (Shaul Mizrahi), a colleague of Moshe’s from his wild secular days, with the restless Yosef (Ilan Gannai) in tow. Seeing this as another divine gift, Moshe and Mali invite the newcomers to stay in their sukkah, without knowing they’re on the lam from a prison day-release program. Despite their guests’ slov-enly, outrageous behavior, the couple lay on the hospitality, believing they’re being tested by God.
Once the guests are introduced, Rand’s script doesn’t really know what to do with them, forcing him to find a quick and tepid solution. At times teetering on the brink of sentimentality, helmer Gidi Dar prevents it from spilling over, thanks to his warmth for these characters and their Yiddishkeit humor.
Like Moshe himself, Shuli Rand was a secular Jew who became religious. “Ushpizin” is his labor of love, and obviously a defense of the ultra-Orthodox community; presenting it in a positive light brought him back to the screen after nine years away. In a genial but firm riposte to the depiction of Orthodox women in pics such as “A Price Above Rubies,” Rand consciously makes Mali a vital partner in their loving relationship: the rabbi (Daniel Dayan) pointedly tells Moshe, “You should make your wife happy. That’s the most important thing.”
As a couple, Shuli and Michal’s ease with each other and evident affection beautifully translates onto the screen — they have fun together, not something usually associated with the ultra-Orthodox. Religious strictures forbade him from performing with a woman other than his wife, and although Michal Bat Sheva Rand never acted before, she winningly conveys Mali’s contempo sense of humor along with her tough intelligence.
Dar makes superb use of the location shooting, giving the courtyard where the sukkahs are erected the feeling of an old-time Hollywood stage set which in turn fills in for an entire world. Music incorporates catchy klezmer melodies but occasionally threatens to overdramatize.