Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film PostersIs this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime? Ushpizin is not available for rent through Netflix Watch Instant, but it is available through the iTunes Store and Amazon Prime.

Starring: Shuli Rand, Michal Bat-Sheva Rand, Shaul Mizrahi, Ilan Ganani, Yonathan Danino

Directed by: Giddi Dar

Written By: Shuli Rand

A foreign-made film does more than just tell a story. It often shines its lens on the culture it portrays and on a part of the world that we are likely unfamiliar with. One of the most unfortunate aspects of our American movie business is the lack of support for the distribution of foreign films in American theaters. Aside from the fact that American audiences are deprived of a vast store of wonderful stories told from around the world, the likelihood of eradicating our ignorance of other cultures and the attendant stereotypes we create of those cultures is reduced by not giving foreign films the support they deserve. Ushpizin exemplifies this notion. An Israeli film made in 2004, Ushpizin (which means “guest” in Aramaic) became one of Israel’s most financially successful films and won for Best Actor at the Ophir Awards (the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars).

Ushpizin is a unique film because it was made by a former actor (Shuli Rand) and his wife (Michal Bat-Sheva Rand) who are both Breslov Chassidim, a sect of Hassidic Judaism (Orthodox Judaism) that forbids its followers from going to the cinema. Furthermore, this film marks a very rare collaboration between secular and ultra-Orthodox Israelis. Due to his beliefs, Shuli Rand refused to play his character opposite a woman other than his real wife. Michal Bat-Sheva Rand, Shuli’s real wife, had never acted before, but she took on the role so that the film could be made.

The story takes place during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, which requires observant Jews to create temporary dwellings (sort of like pitching a tent, but in this case they look like wooden shacks). Frequently, those observing the holiday will bring in guests to stay with them as well, which is seen as a blessing. However, for Moshe Bellanga (Shuli Rand) and his wife, Mali (Michal Bat-Sheva Rand), they are an impoverished and childless couple who cannot afford to pay their rent, let alone afford to celebrate the holiday. After an impassioned and anguished plea to God for a miracle, the couple receives an anonymous monetary gift on the eve of the holiday. Excited by this gift from God, Moshe and Mali set out to create their sukkah (the temporary dwelling) and prepare for the festivities. The couple is also visited by two escaped convicts (Shaul Mizrahi and Ilan Ganani), who we soon discover knew Moshe in an earlier and much wilder life. The convicts become guests at the sukkah, but this apparent blessing turns out to be a disaster for the couple.

Most of us can probably not relate to the Hassidic culture and lifestyle of Moshe and Mali, but we can relate to life’s various challenges such as not having enough money to pay the bills or trying to produce a child. During the first 15 minutes of Ushpizin, you immediately identify with Moshe and Mali’s problems and feel the helplessness they feel in not being able to get even a slight reprieve from their problems. This is particularly frustrating given that they have taken a vow to live in a Breslov community and lead strictly religious lives. Wouldn’t it be safe to assume that life’s hardships would go away if one were to devote their entire life to God? Moshe and Mali finally receive God’s blessing in the form of money after Moshe makes a desperate plea to receive God’s help. The scene where Moshe earnestly prays to God to grant him a miracle is a truly emotional scene (yes, even if you’re an atheist) and if you come away from that feeling nothing, then you must be heartless.

Being a character-driven film, much of Ushpizin’s success hinges on the performances of the husband and wife. I don’t know whether its because the two actors are a real-life married couple, but the chemistry between them is clearly apparent. The characters defy the typical characterization of Hasidic Jews where the wife is totally subservient to her husband. Although Mali is obedient to her husband and plays the traditional role of a housewife, the two also have a mutual respect for each other. Both actors give astonishing performances that are complex, truthful, and engaging. Both characters are also intensely emotional and Mali has a temperament as raging as her husband’s. I was especially taken by Michal Bat-Sheva Rand, who is not an actor and who only played in the film at her husband’s request.

Adding to the frustration of the couple’s problems are the two nitwit escaped convicts who show up unexpected at Moshe and Mali’s sukkah. These guys totally take advantage of Moshe and Mali’s hospitality by eating all their food and overstaying their welcome. However, despite their behavior, the couple continues to treat them like family. To us, the couple’s blind trust in the ex-cons may come off as foolish and naïve, especially given how obviously unscrupulous these crooks are. But seen in a different light, the couple’s overzealous hospitality reflects an affirmation of the strength of their unshakeable faith. At times I felt the convict characters were a little too one-dimensional and almost borderline slapstick. At other times, they came off as being on the verge of committing an act of violence against the couple and I was confused by whether I was supposed to find this funny.

Although Ushpizin focuses on a particular sect of Judaism, the film does not preach about the virtues of the religion or try to gain any converts. In fact, the film’s message transcends any religion or belief and it avoids being dogmatic. What’s more, Ushpizin accomplishes the delicate balance between its spirituality and its comedic plot. This is one of the most difficult things to pull off in any film because if not done right, the film can be perceived as being critical of the beliefs in the story. The humor is not over-the-top hysterical and I mostly found it unfunny (mostly because I prefer my humor dirty), but given how the filmmakers had to operate within the restrictions of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, just the fact that there is any humor in the film is astonishing.

I could have also done without the sentimental epilogue of the story. The filmmakers probably felt that they needed to tie everything up neatly before ending their story. The ending is surely in keeping with the plot’s fable-like structure, but it would have been just as consistent with the film’s recurrent theme of a person’s worth being measured by how he/she handles God’s challenges if the couple did not have a baby.

Ushpizin has an exotic quality to it in how it portrays the lifestyle of the ultra-Orthodox Israeli community. The film successfully brings us inside this closed world by inviting us to experience the community’s culture and rituals. At the same time, the filmmakers do not rest on their laurels and solely rely on giving us a window into this community. They also manage to give us a light-hearted comedic fable that may be a bit too sentimental in the end, but its nonetheless an engaging piece of entertainment that I recommend you see.