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USHPIZIN (PG) (2004)

Picturehouse Films

Official Site

Director: Giddi Dar

Producers: Rafi Bukai, Giddi Dar

Written by: Shuli Rand

Cast: Shuli Rand, Michal Bat-Sheva Rand, Shaul Mizrahi, Ilan Ganani, Avraham Abutboul


On the way out of the theater, a fellow reviewer and I were commiserating over the unfortunate likelihood that a great many moviegoers in the United States will never hear word one about Ushpizin, and that of those who do, only a pale sliver will probably venture to go and see it.

His particular lament was that the non-English title alone would steer the masses away, toward bigger, more familiar, “safer” fare. A point. But to my thinking, you could call it King Kong II: XXX Judgment Day and it still wouldn’t generate much more than a trickle of interest for a PG-rated, subtitled meditation on faith, by and about members of the Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem. Oh, and it’s shot entirely in Yiddish. Oy.

But before you freak out and rush off to go see Jesus Is Magic or something, give it a second. Yes, it takes a little bit of willingness, at first, to acclimate yourself to Ushpizin’s particular world. And no, it may not be positively everyone’s cinematic cup of tea. But for all its (ostensibly) specific religiosity, Ushpizin is one of the simplest, most generally applicable and enjoyable films I’ve seen in quite some time.

We open at a market, with various shots of bearded, be-hatted men in traditional black garments haggling with one another over produce, each trying to hang on to his respective shekels. Get used to these fellas; you’re going to see a lot of them. Onto the scene steps Moshe Bellanga (Shuli Rand), a humble man who, we will learn, is earnestly devout but wants for much—namely, money to live on and a son with his wife Malli (Michal Bat-Sheva Rand). (You’ll notice, perchance, their surnames; yes, they’re really married. Yes, that’s sweet. Moving along.) Both of Moshe’s perceived deficiencies converge on a single object at the market: a humdinger of a citron (or “lemon,” for our purposes, a traditional harbinger of male children), called “the diamond” for its perfection and priced accordingly at one thousand shekels. Moshe picks it up, examines it with an eyepiece, and then leaves, insinuating (to the vendors’ great amusement) that he’ll be back for it later.

“Citron” is not the only translation necessary here. Ushpizin transpires during the week-long Orthodox festival of Succoth, which commemorates the Jewish exodus from Egypt. In the days leading up to Succoth, the devout construct temporary, booth-like dwellings called Succah and collect four species of plants (including our friend citron) for blessings. They move into the Succah as the holiday begins, eat and give thanks for seven days, then come out at week’s end and destroy the booths—a reminder that life on Earth, like the Succah, is only a temporary state. So Succoth, what with all the building materials and species to collect, can weigh a mite heavily on the average Orthodox pocketbook. On Moshe’s, the weight is all but unbearable. He doesn’t have the means to acquire a Succah or four species, least of all the uber-citron he believes is his surefire ticket to doting fatherhood. Malli feels the heat as well. Like Moshe, she wants nothing more than to meet with her Succoth obligations, unless that something is to conceive a son, without which success Moshe is within his rights to seek another wife who will allow him to “be fruitful and multiply.” The two, in interlaced scenes, make desperate, prayerful pleas for a miracle as the celebration approaches.

And, summarily, they get a couple. A friend alerts Moshe to the whereabouts of an apparently discarded but usable Succah, and a random $1,000 donation from a Jewish charitable organization makes its way to the Bellangas’ doorstep. Things seem to be looking decidedly up when Moshe receives a pair of unexpected guests for the Succoth feast, an event generally considered a blessing in itself (“ushpizin” translates loosely as “holy guests”). These particular guests, however—an old friend of Moshe’s and his companion, who happen to have recently escaped from prison—quickly serve cause to reconsider that notion.

The rather disproportionate exposition-to-just-about-anything-else ratio in this review might seem to imply a film that’s dense, inaccessible or difficult to engage. Not so and quite the contrary. Though it certainly requires a bit of orientation during the early goings, screenwriter Rand and director Giddi Dar are keenly aware of their potential “outsider” audience, and bring you along slowly and with care. By minute ten, you’re versed in context and (more importantly) immersed in the tale, which does not disappoint on any level. Moshe is quietly hapless, impassioned, and real; wife Malli is level-headed, spunky, and eminently sympathetic; and the baddies(?), particularly lanky Shaul Mizrahi, are coolly and palpably menacing. Mizrahi, in moments, gives disquieting echoes of De Niro’s Max Cady in the Scorsese re-do of Cape Fear. The story itself is delightful and versatile: discernible as parable, culture study, or intimately human feel-gooder, it’ll get you one way or another. I’ve never given a five before, but for the life of me, I can’t find anything wrong with this one. Seriously. Go see it. I’ll buy you a lemon.

—Brian Villalobos

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