“Ushpizin” (Picturehouse Films) is a unique and rare collaboration between the secular and orthodox Jewish communities in Israel. The fusion of these two very different backgrounds creates an objective and honest portrayal of the orthodox community.
The secular director, Gidi Dar, was friends with actor-screenwriter Shuli Rand when Rand was a famous Israeli actor, before he became an orthodox Jew and left the movie industry. Rand returned after approval from his rabbi to make a film about the lifestyle of the orthodox community, which often clashes with that of the secular community. During the filming, Rand’s rabbi served as consultant and Dar signed a contract agreeing that the movie would adhere to Jewish law.
The film follows Moshe (Rand) and his wife Malli (Rand’s real-life wife, Michal Bat Sheva Rand) as they prepare for the Jewish holiday Sukkot. They are broke and do not have enough money to participate in the festivities and build the sukkah, which they are to live in during the holiday.
After a “holiday miracle” bestows them with $1,000, they enthusiastically participate, only to be surprised by two guests who are ex-convicts and know Moshe from a very different time in his life. The guests are considered “ushpizin,” or “holy guests,” and Moshe and Malli take them in and deal with the ramifications of their non-orthodox behavior.
The movie has a very authentic feel, due mostly to Rand’s screenplay, which is based on actual events in his life. It explores the intricacies of Sukkot and orthodox Judaism, as well as how it clashes with the secular world. The plot develops and unfolds at a good pace, absorbing the viewer into the lives of Moshe and Malli. Gidi Dar’s direction is unobtrusive and yields to the script, without dragging politics into the movie. His shots of the streets and city capture the feeling of living in modern-day Israel.
The strength of “Ushpizin” is Shuli Rand’s powerful performance, for which he won the 2004 Israeli Film Academy Best Actor award. He portrays Moshe as devout but conflicted, obviously battling demons of his past, but making a respectful effort to change his life around. Michal Rand also gives a commanding performance as the devoted but independent wife, and steals every scene she is in. The multilayered relationship between Michal and Malli is the driving force of the movie.
“Ushpizin” is successful because it is open to interpretation. It is a religious movie, but doesn’t overwhelm you or alienate you with the religion. Even as an outsider to the Jewish world, you never feel lost while watching it. The movie leaves it up to the viewer to decide where the “miracles” are coming from, whether coincidence or a higher power. It provides an interesting view into the world of orthodox Judaism, which many people in America are often not exposed to, while also creating a more universal feel-good movie. The film really ends up being about the characters and how they overcome obstacles, test their faith and stay true to their beliefs.
“Ushpizin” is now playing in selected theaters nationwide.