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.