- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 25, 2005

“Ushpizin” (Aramaic for “holy guests”) is an Israeli domestic comedy that qualifies as an endearing folk parable for the extended holiday season. The principal collaborators, screenwriter and leading actor Shuli Rand and director Gidi Dar, sustain a clever balance between skepticism and benevolence while updating themes of faith, adversity and miraculous intercession in a setting that juxtaposes the ancient and modern.

Possibly a cultural eye-opener and bridge-builder in Israel itself, “Ushpizin” takes place among Orthodox (some would argue ultra-Orthodox) Hasidic Jews in Jerusalem during the traditional harvest holiday of Sukkot, which occurs soon after Yom Kippur and can involve a full week of feasting and celebrating. Outsiders charmed by the movie may be inclined to investigate the Sukkot prospects next October as, judging from the plot, uninvited guests are considered a blessing.

Mr. Rand is a bearish, ruminative character actor who joined a Hasidic congregation a decade ago after a lifetime in the secular camp. He seems to have formed an enviable conjugal-professional partnership with Michal Bat Sheva Rand, a stoutly proportioned powerhouse and sweetheart who is the only actress permitted under religious law to play her husband’s wife.

The Rands are cast as a penniless, childless and devout couple, Moshe and Malli Bellanga. They drive each other crazy on a more or less daily basis, but they can’t live without each other. Theirs is one of the most believable and engaging male-female attachments in recent memory.

At the approach of Sukkot, Moshe laments his inability to afford even the simplest of huts, a succah, installed by the faithful of their district to provide a kind of prefab, streetfront dining room for hosts and guests during the holiday.

“We need a miracle,” he reflects. Naturally, he gets one. The Bellangas become the beneficiaries of an anonymous yeshiva donation slipped under their doorstep. Suddenly, a proper celebration is feasible, enhanced by fresh evidence of God’s mysterious ways.

The Rands hasten to build, cook and decorate, but it’s a little late to round up guests. Those arrive in the unbidden form of two crooks, Eliyahu (Shaul Mizrahi) and Yossef (Ilan Ganani), who appear to have taken advantage of a lenient warden and violated parole. Although not poorly played, the two interlopers are deployed arbitrarily, so it’s never quite certain where they belong on a spectrum from sinister to harmless.

Although Moshe cannot refuse the hospitality of his succah, he is not thrilled at the notion of being blackmailed by Eliyahu and his sidekick, who intend to make their visit a long, opportunistic one. It proves so disruptive that the Rands offend their neighbors and teeter on the brink of estrangement before being rescued by another miracle, somewhat implicit from the outset.

Many spectators may want to enlarge their understanding by consulting with friends or relatives who are more knowledgeable about things Jewish, Israeli and Hasidic. This could be one of the most stimulating discussion movies of the holiday months. For most purposes it will suffice if gentiles think of Moshe as a devout but impoverished evangelical whose faith merits humorous redemption, transcending a disreputable past and numerous character flaws in the present.

**1/2

TITLE: “Ushpizin”

RATING: PG (Fleeting profanity and comic vulgarity)

CREDITS: Directed by Gidi Dar. Screenplay by Shuli Rand. Cinematography by Amit Yasur. Music by Nathaniel Mechaly, Iosif Bardanashvili and Adi Ran. In Hebrew with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 91 minutes

WEB SITE: www.ushpizin.com

MAXIMIM RATING FOUR STARS

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