Rightwing Film Geek

New film has Old Testament feel

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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.

shuliin.jpgMoshe (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 …

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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.

couplecitron.jpgThere’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.
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First published at The Fact Is.

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November 22, 2005 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Passion updates

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A bunch of news on THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST these past few days (while I struggle over my Top 10 post), not including the latest words from Abraham Foxman and Marvin Heir, on whom I will waste no more bandwidth as their latest words (especially the former’s) are inexplicable except as an unadulterated blood libel from anti-Christian bigots.

ITEM! I’m surprised I haven’t seen more about this at St. Blogs. A Texas theater chain is refusing to run a pre-film ad, timed to coincide with THE PASSION, from the state Baptist Convention. According to the church spokesman, AMC Theaters has said the 30-second ad is, among other things, “too Christian.” Um, yeah. The Pepsi ads are too capitalist too, I guess.

This is a common demand made of Christians — that our speech (in this case commercial speech) and access to public forums is conditional, second-class or somehow suspect. As a college student, I once distributed fliers at some University of Texas academic departments and student/professor boxes for a speech being given at a Christian off-campus ministry. I had to assure several of the department secretaries, whose permission I needed, that the speech would not be religious, as though that mattered.

ITEM! While the response by Heir to this interview was contemptible, I don’t think Gibson does himself any favors by engaging in the relative martyrdom game, defensible though it may be in itself.

The filial devotion aside, he has enough to do to defend THE PASSION from the (apparently absurd) anti-Semitism charges and really shouldn’t be a soldier on these historians’ wars. It raises eyebrows and is really hardly better than having to listen to the Dixie Chicks, Michael Moore, Martin Sheen, Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, Ed Asner, Alan Alda, Gwyneth Paltrow, Danny Glover, Rosie O’Donnell … (NOTICE FROM BLOGGER: List too long and an abuse of free bandwidth. Cease forthwith.) Yes, people can debate the uniqueness of the Holocaust, and I suspect Gibson and I would have a lot to agree on about the shameful relative whitewashing of Communist genocides (not the plural).

But Mel … choose your fights.

morgenstern1.jpgITEM! Maia Morgenstern, a Romanian Jew whose father died in the Holocaust, defended Gibson and THE PASSION, in which she plays Mary. Interview is here.

ITEM! The New York Times reports that Gibson decided to delete a scene that tested poorly — the “his blood be upon us and our children” line, from Matthew 27:25. This is probably the Gospel verse that Jews consider the most anti-Semitic, and defenses of Gibson from Christians who had seen earlier cuts of the film had specified that this notorious verse was not in the movie. So he was tinkering. Again, bad move in adding, Mel. Though maybe this was the old bargaining technique of putting in something you don’t care about in order to get praise for relenting on it later. A tactic not unfamiliar here inside the Beltway.

February 4, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jews for Mel (sorta)

Some sanity comes from a couple of America’s leading rabbis, one of whom who has seen THE PASSION OF CHRIST and expressed reservations over it.

Rabbi James Rudin of the American Jewish Committee, while not backing away from his criticisms, said that Jewish groups should not boycott the film but should take a different tack — try to use the occasion to teach about the history of Christian anti-Semitism.

eckstein.jpgAnother senior rabbi, Yechiel Eckstein, the founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, says it is not wise¹ for Jews to be seen as trying to dictate Christian artists’ interpretation to their own religion. Plus Jews have much bigger fish to fry in the world today and he compared focusing on Passion plays as generals still fighting the last war. Amen.
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¹ This link goes to a Salt Lake City Deseret News article in February 2004, later than this article’s time-stamp. The Baltimore Sun article I linked to when I first wrote this post in November 2003 was no longer on the Web when I reposted this entry in January 2008, unchanged in its text, except for this footnote and the photo(see the original here). Even though the February 2004 Deseret News article cites a press statement from Rabbi Eckstein from that week (“Tuesday”), you can see that the Rabbi is making essentially the same points I cited him as making the previous fall.

November 29, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment