Movie Review: Ushpizin

Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community is sometimes viewed by the rest of the population as a cultural anomaly. Although many may be repulsed by their seemingly backward lifestyle and evangelistic ways, there’s also no small amount of fascination regarding their differentness. It is from this allure that the Israeli movie “Ushpizin” (which means ‘Holy Guests’) brings the observer to see both the pathos and the humor in those whose faith is deep, and yet not without doubts.

As this movie begins, it is nearing the Jewish holiday of Sukkoth. During this holiday Jews are enjoined to build a Sukkah and live in it for seven days. In Jerusalem, the Balangas, Moshe and Mali, are a couple who aren’t having an easy time of it. Their recently found devotion and faith seems to be constantly tested. After five years of marriage they still don’t have any children, and now they’re flat broke. They have no Sukkah, and cannot buy the “Four Species” required for the special holiday prayers, or even food for the holiday feast. Without any of that, they also can’t fulfill the commandment of Ushpizin – which is to host guests in their Sukkah for the holiday. So they turn to prayer in hopes for a miracle, and surprisingly enough, their prayers are answered. Moshe is given an abandoned Sukkah, and then they receive a $1000 anonymous gift. In his euphoria, Moshe wastes money on a special Etrog (or Citron) and earrings for his wife. Then a friend of Moshe’s from the “old days” and his buddy show up in the Balanga’s Sukkah. However, these guests aren’t the least holy, since they’re escaped convicts. With this, we are soon reminded of the adage “be careful what you wish for”.

This setup leaves plenty of comedic and dramatic fodder, given to us in equal measure, with a gentleness that only a truly intelligent script can give. But there’s nothing over-the-top hysterical or overly maudlin here, and that allows us an unthreatening and enjoyable venture into their special world. The humor feels honest and real, probably because this script was written by Shuli Rand, the actor who plays Moshe.

The main actors were able to draw upon their real lives for their parts (they’re both newly religious and married to each other), bringing a natural chemistry, humanity and honesty to their roles. Any initial aversions one may bring to watching this film are quickly dispersed because you quickly realize that these people are ultimately likable. We can also immediately identify with their frustrations and their love – both for each other and in their faith. And while the two thieves are perfectly portrayed in a distasteful manner, we can even like them in the end. The only drawback of this film is that the ending includes an epilogue that is unnecessary as it is slightly too sentimental, and ties things up a bit too neatly. Even so, Ushpizin is a lovely Israeli film that gives us a fascinating look into the world of Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox community.

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