A film set in the orthodox milieu of an Ultra orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem may sound like a niche piece of limited interest, but good acting and a laid-back, slightly old fashioned pace and good performances redeem Ushpizin and make for a rather pleasant and often funny viewing. All in all, it’s an unpretentious comedy about tolerance and humility with a universal resonance.
The story is hinged around the festive holiday Succoth, the period when the Jews commemorate the time of the Exodus. Moshe Bellanga (Shuli Rand), a devout member of the Breslau Chasidim and former bad boy before his conversion, is penniless and doesn’t have the money to get together a Succah, the temporary dwelling where religious Jews stay during the festival and where they accommodate their Ushpizin (holy guests). Rent is also late, much to Molle’s wife Malli’s chagrin who had to hide behind the door when the landlord comes to collect payment. The couple doesn’t even have money to buy the mandatory date-palm branches (lulav), myrtle (hadas), willow (avaros) and citron (esrog). In short, they are down and out while everyone around them seems to doing all right.
Then a miracle happens and money literally appears under their door just in time for them to get all the provisions necessary to spend a decent holiday. But Moshe’s past comes back to haunt him in the shape of Eliyahu and Yossef, two prisoners who escape while on furlough and come looking for their former associate, a kind of guess-who’s-coming-for-dinner plot development. Since it is considered a blessing to host guests in the Succah, the two fugitives are welcome, despite their appaling table manners and the fact that they initially are suspicious of the sincerity of Moshe’s new-found faith.
Ushpizin is a comedy of manners clearly designed to dispel myths about Orthodox Jews, who are portrayed as a tolerant, happy and not necessarily a rich bunch as anti-Semites like to portray Jews in general as part of their smearing campaign. Levels of cuteness and schmaltz get dangerously high at points, but the sincerity of Moshe and Malli’s love of god (and for each other – the actors are a real-life couple) and their compassion make up for the dogmatic elements and the overall artlessness of the film. It also makes for an interesting counterpoint to Sandi Simcha DuBowski’s moving award-winning documentary about gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews, Trembling Before G-D (2003).
Ushpizin opens in the UK on 17 March 2006.