The ultra-orthodox community in Israel is almost always portrayed from the outside, but this modest, good-natured comedy by writer-star Shull Rand, an actor who himself turned his back on the secular life and embraced the orthodox life, and director Giddi Dar definitely offer an inside view. Rand plays Moshe, something of a modern Tevye, who lives with his plump, loving wife Mali (played by his real spouse Michal Bat-Sheva Rand) in a neighborhood of like-minded souls. Penniless, and unhappily childless as well, the couple are unable to properly celebrate the festival of Sukkot, in which each family is to decamp to a small shed to remind themselves of exile and hope that, as a special blessing, they will there receive guests. Happily Moshe and Mali receive what appears a double dose of good fortune. Not only does a friend tell Moshe of a shed that will go unused, which he promptly borrows and reassembles in the courtyard below the couple’s walk-up flat, but they receive an unexpected boon in the form of a windfall donation from their local yeshiva’s charity fund. And their prayer seems further rewarded when guests do in fact appear, in the form of one of Moshe’s old buddies from his secular youth, Eliahu (Shaul Mizrahi), who’s accompanied by pal Yosef (Ilan Ganani).
It’s this latter circumstance from which the movie takes its title–“Ushpizin,” as a note at the start tells us, is the Aramaic for “guests.” The problem is that Eliahu and Yosef are convicts on the lam who have looked up Moshe to leech off him for as long as they can, and the duo grow increasingly demanding and troublesome as their stay continues. At one point they even chop up a “perfect” lemon that Moshe has spent a small fortune on because of its religious symbolism, for use in a salad. Yet Moshe and Mali are ashamed that they actually resort to subterfuge in order to get the men to leave, and when the obnoxious fellows return they welcome them back with open arms. Nonetheless the pair’s antics eventually lead to the couple’s breakup, and it’s only with difficulty that their marriage is restored. Yet the experience brings them a further blessing in the end.
One will never confuse this movie with a serious view of ultra-orthodox life in Israel; it’s basically a feel-good piece that’s as manipulative as they come, and if you strip away the cultural peculiarities the characters are in many respects stereotypes with a sitcom air about them. Yet the unusual milieu gives them an exotic feel that distinguishes the picture from more conventional fare. Simply put, this is a world that will be new to most viewers, and having the opportunity to see it from the inside, as it were, is itself refreshing. To be sure, its religious character will leave many viewers perplexed. The precise meaning of the Sukkot is never fully articulated, for example, and in particular the significance of the citrus on which Moshe places such value is never explained. But one needn’t be a member of this community to appreciate the warmth between Moshe and Mali, or the relationship that exists between Moshe and his rabbi. And while the ending surely ties things up too neatly, in this context it doesn’t seem quite as crudely calculating as it might otherwise.
On the technical level there’s nothing special here–this is a decidedly low-budget production, and looks it. But the rough-and-ready appearance fits, and the performances, while hardly subtle, lend color and vibrancy to the action. Ultimately what marks “Ushpizin” apart is that it invites us all into a community that we might simply dismiss as remote and foreign. And by making us all guests in that world for ninety minutes, it raises our cultural awareness a bit, as well as generating some gentle smiles along the way.