Moshe Bellanga (writer Shuli Rand, "The New Land") is saddened that he must return home to his beloved wife Mali (Michal Bat-Sheva Rand) and tell her that he has no money on the day before the Succoth holiday is about to begin. They take to heart some words of wisdom from the Rabbi about the power of prayer, however, and lo and behold, Moshe's friend Ben finds him an abandoned Succah (the temporary shelter used to celebrate the holiday in remembrance of the time of Exodus) and the local charity slips $1,000 U.S. dollars under their door. But their final blessing is a visiting friend from Moshe's past, Eliyahu Scorpio (Shaul Mizrahi, "Not Without My Daughter"), who along with his own friend Yossef (Ilan Ganani) become the Bellangas "Ushpizin."
This is the first film made by ultra-Orthodox Jews and not only does it provide a rare glimpse inside a protected world, but it seems to have been blessed by the same kind of restraints which initially plague the Bellangas. Writer/star Shuli Rand was once a professional stage and screen actor who is now strict Orthodox, a similar path taken by his character Moshe (although Moshe's former criminal past would be regarded by some as the more startling conversion). Rand worked under the rules set by the local rabbi, who decreed no actress could be hired, and so Shuli's wife stepped in to play his wife. She almost walks away with the picture.
The Succoth holiday is ideally spent in a temporary shelter called a Succah, here depicted as four wooden walls with draped windows, the 'roof' composed of rushes. It is celebrated with the 'four species,' date-palm branches, myrtle, willow and citron, the last of which is the most important because it is said to provide a fertility blessing that brings male children. Feasting goes on and it is considered lucky to have guests (the Ushpizin of the title) partake of your hospitality.
Moshe, who earlier in the day was tantalized by 'The Diamond,' the most beautiful citron in all of Jerusalem, returns to the sellers flush with cash and purchases the prized lemon for 1,000 shekels (over $200!). Moshe and Mali have been married for five years and have no children, a situation which weighs heavily on Mali (when hopeful, she compares them to Abraham and Sarah, whose story is paralleled here), so Moshe is hoping God's blessings will continue. He's jubilant when he finds Eliyahu and Yossef in his Succah, but he neglects to tell the more cautious Mali what he suspects - that their guests are on the lam from the law (and indeed, we have seen that the two skipped town after a furlough from prison). Their guests' bad behavior begins a downward spiral of increasingly dire events and Moshe spends the Succoth trying to outguess his God - has He cast the Bellangas from His favor or are they being tested?
"Ushpizin" is a delightful tale with wonderful messages about faith, hope and charity, all three of which prove essential ingredients for the Bellangas' happy life. And although this tale is steeped in its religion, it is often surprisingly modern and full of earthy humor. (Near the end of the film, Mali, standing at a street-facing window, asks her husband for a cigarette. He cautions about the neighbors' view. She glumly advises that 'they've seen it all.') The married couple is one of those whose chemistry positively radiates on screen. There is no doubt of the love, affection and devotion between the Bellangas and the Rands create great screen characters that we truly invest in. Mizrahi and Ganani are more stereotypical, although Mizrahi, at least, adds some flavor with his odd appearance, sinewy and cornrowed, wearing a loud shirt, a complete contrast to Moshe. Support is better among Moshe's community, his well-meaning friend Ben, the wealthy Gabay and the understanding, kindly Rabbi.
The film stays within the boundaries of the Breslau yeshiva, the streets which form its district, the very modest Bellanga apartment and their succah, but director Giddi Dar has made a whole world come to life. Music is comprised of both the expected traditional and the unexpected local pop (Mali sings and bounces along to one radio tune as she enjoys her unexpected windfall early in the film). Camerawork is simple, although a few tracking shots along the Breslau streets and within Moshe's neighborhood courtyard, are nicely handled.
"Ushpizin" is a true cinematic experience - it takes you to a world which you might not otherwise ever experience. And it leaves you with a smile.
Succoth, the orthodox Jewish festival to celebrate the Exodus from Egypt, has arrived but Moshe and Malli Bellanga (Shuli Rand and his real-life wife Michal Bat Sheva Rand) are too poor to give the celebration the honor it deserves. Childless, without the funds to acquire the four species for the celebration – date palm branches (lulav), myrtle (hadas), willow (aravos) and citron (asrog) - or the needed Succah (temporary shelter), the couple beseeches the Lord to help them. But, one must be careful what one pray for. The prayers just might get answered, in “Ushpizin.”
The ushpizin of the title translates to “holy guest,” the honor of being visited by others and give them shelter in your Succah. For Moshe and Malli, though, the guests that descend upon them, Eliyahu (Shaul Mizrahi) and Yossef (Ilan Ganani), are anything but holy and the couple’s faith is sorely tested.
Moshe is a recent convert to the Orthodox Breslau Chasidim and, as a rabbi, counts on the generosity of his superiors to provide the means to properly celebrate Succoth. But, funds are short and the Chasidim leaders cannot give Moshe anything. He and Malli fervently pray to God for the means to properly worship during he festival and, most importantly, to honor them with a male child. Through a quirky circumstance, the American representative to the Orthodox community finds that there is $1000 dollar left over from its philanthropies and, suddenly, the Bellangas’ prayers are answered.
The couple does it up big time, with Moshe spending a small fortune on the perfect citron, considered essential for the blessing to have male children. When Eliyahu, a friend from Moshe’s shady past, and Yossef – the pair are escapees from and Israeli prison – show up on the Bellanga doorstep, the couple consider themselves blessed. That is, until the unsavory visitors take advantage of the situation and stir up the ire of the conservative community with their irreverence. Suddenly, Moshe and Malli don’t consider themselves quite so blessed.
Ushpizin” is a unique piece of work in many respects. It is the first film to be shot within the Orthodox Jewish community – with the approval of its elders. To accomplish this no small feat, the filmmakers, helmer Gidi Dar and scripter/star Shuli Rand, had to meet some very strict criteria, including bringing in Rand’s wife to play his fictional spouse – an actress, not married to Rand, would not be allowed to play the part. The result makes for a very real relationship and a comfort level between the stars that is palpable and convincing.
Giri Dar and Rand immerse us into a world little known outside the Orthodox Jewish community and do it with warmth and humor that make “Ushpizin” a treat. Besides a candid view into the celebration of Succoth and all of its trappings and ceremony, there is also a look at the relationship between Moshe and Malli that is genuine – thanks to the efforts of the stars. Shaul Mizrahi and Ilan Ganani, as Eliyahu and Yossef, add to the equation with their irredeemable sleaziness that, though seemingly destructive, helps bring the couple closer together in love and faith.
Faith is what “Ushpizin” is all about and, between the fine writing, direction and view into what is, to most of us, a foreign world seldom if ever seen, is the heart of the film. This well-crafted and interesting film is a little treat and deserves attention beyond its inclusion in the various Jewish film festivals. Besides, I wouldn’t mind being an ushpizin if the food and drink are any indication of the dedication and faith of the Orthodox Jewish community. I give it a B.
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