USHPIZIN, Giddi Dar, Israel, 2005, 8
“Blessed are all they that fear the Lord: that walk in his ways … it shall be well with thee. Thy wife as a fruitful vine, on the sides of thy house. Thy children as olive plants, round about thy table. Behold, thus shall the man be blessed that feareth the Lord.”
– Psalm 127
To the hero of the Israeli film “Ushpizin,” those are hollow words. His wife is not a fruitful vine. Yet God has made his promises, so, in the classic Deuteronomical view of God’s providence, the fault must be with him. God grants us everything we need and everything for which we pray sufficiently well.
Moshe (Shuli Rand) is a member of an Orthodox Jewish group, the Breslau Hasidics, living with his wife Malli (Michal Bat-Sheva Rand) in the group’s own open-courtyard block, somewhat apart from Jerusalem society (e.g., the Israeli police seek explanations and get reassurances from religious elders upon entering the courtyard to answer a call). It’s the harvest festival of Succot, and, in accord with Jewish tradition, each family must build a hut outside their home and offer hospitality to all strangers. But Moshe and Malli are so poor that they can barely even feed themselves.
Then a miracle happens, and they can now build their hut. Thanks be to God. Then two strangers (Shaul Mizrahi and Ilan Ganani) show up, escapees from an Israeli jail and acquaintances from Moshe’s pre-conversion hell-raising life as Bad Bad Leroy Brownstein. Moshe thinks they’re up to no good; Malli says they’re the “ushpizin” (guests) that God has blessed them with and that he’s failing to trust Him, something that would especially sting a man who recently abandoned a dissolute life. A rabbi (Daniel Dayan) warns Moshe that every time you pass a test, God sends a harder one. And while doing his godly duties, he has to leave the two convicts alone with his wife, who knows neither Moshe’s past nor their ties to him.
Taking the form of a comic fable or fairy tale, “Ushpizin” is as clean and simply plotted as Aesop, while being both as gentle in tone and as tough in its subtext as any fairy tale. “Ushpizin” also offers a rare look into a closed and reclusive subculture, but from an insider’s point-of-view. Combined with the setting and the constant invocations of a providential God, the film has the feel of Old Testament wisdom literature. If David or Solomon had been film-makers they might have produced something like this. There are obvious elements of Job, parallels to several Psalms, the basic plot situation of Abraham and Sarah (no Hagar here though), the familiar plot point of the unwelcome guest, the line “we need a miracle” is repeated with variations several times. And if you’re one of those Biblical scholars who has problems with the ending of Job …
One of the most remarkable things about “Ushpizin” is how “present” God is. There are constant invocations of Him, the movie’s most-memorable sequence is of prayer being simultaneously asked and answered, the dramatic conflict concerns His providence and centers on the role white lies, bets, evil and threats therein play in it. Warm-hearted and austere at the same time, it commands a response to God’s love without sugar-coating its difficulties (what religious man – Jew, Christian or Zoroastrian – can’t associate with that). In sum, HaShem is actually the most important Character in the movie, which fades off into the closing credits with a celebratory psalm being sung … “there is nothing but God.”
In the 90 years since D.W. Griffith had the Klan race against time to save the honor of Lillian Gish, movies have intercut parallel action to build suspense or to unite events separated in time and space. It’s now so cliche, you can even play against it (think of the climax of “Silence of the Lambs”). But “Ushpizin” is the only film I can think of to intercut two characters praying. And a third character doing something unwitting to answer their prayers. And, marvelously, to the same classical effect, of uniting the divided under God’s Providence. Director Giddi Dar cinematically portrays marriage as one soul in two bodies, and prayer to God as what unites. There’s even (I hate to say this so bluntly) an erotic charge to the simultaneous depiction of each spouse’s devotion.
There’s also a key casting reason for this easy chemistry – Moshe and Malli are portrayed by a real-life husband and wife team of Hasidic Jews (a key requirement to get cooperation from the relevant rabbis). Shuli Rand, an Israeli stage actor before his religious conversion, and Michal Bat-Sheva Rand, a former theater director, are probably the only husband-and-wife Hasidim in the world with significant acting experience. Shuli Rand also wrote the script for Dar, a secularized Israeli Jew.
The great Italian neorealist director Vittorio De Sica once said that everybody can play one character – himself – better than anyone else possibly could. The Rands are not exactly playing themselves in terms of plot events, but in terms of the psychological territory of recent Hasidic converts testing the limits of God’s love and providence, these are roles only they could play. They have an easy familiar love and “screen chemistry” that can neither be faked or nor created by scenes of hot flesh grinding away. Michal Bat-Sheva Rand may cover her hair and wear traditional modest robes, but women in traditional societies are not patsies, something she knows and portrays far better than an outsider.
In presenting a romantic depiction of what a holy, religious marriage looks like, “Ushpizin” joins two other recent Israeli films – “Late Marriage” and “Trembling Before G-d” – in offering some of the cinema’s few serious portrayals of the traditional religious teachings on marriage, family and sex. Perhaps the constraint of avoiding anti-Semitism prevents the kind of vicious caricature of Christians that is par for the course in Hollywood and Indiewood. In the tart dramedy “Late Marriage,” a modern liberated son is shown to be a shmuck when his parents try to arrange a marriage. “Trembling” is a documentary about Hasidic Jews struggling (or not) with homosexuality and the only film I know of about religion and homosexuality that isn’t overdetermined gay propaganda.
First published at The Fact Is.