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As if guided by an unseen hand

Belief works miracles in 'Ushpizin,' an Israeli film that's bridging the gap between religious and secular Jews.

October 19, 2005|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

"Ushpizin" is one of those films that has a direct line to the Almighty. When a character says "we need a miracle," it's only a matter of time until not one but several take place. But what's especially noteworthy about this popular Israeli film is that the greatest miracle of all is that it got made in the first place.

A gently humorous fable about the power of faith and the possibility of change, "Ushpizin" not only takes place in Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, it was filmed with that media-shy group's cooperation and followed religious law at all times.

Israeli films have dealt with that country's haredi community before, but, as with Amos Gitai's "Kadosh," their view is usually a bleak one. "Ushpizin," by contrast, is much sunnier, so much so that it struck a chord with the Israeli public and won the equivalent of the Academy Award for its star, Shuli Rand.

Rand also wrote the script, taking inspiration from his own life. Once a successful Israeli movie star, he left acting in 1996 to became a baal teshuvah, someone who returns to the faith. Here he costars with his real-life nonprofessional wife in part because of Orthodox strictures against close personal contact between nonmarried members of the opposite sex.

The film is set during Sukkot, a fall holiday when it is traditional for Jews to spend part of their days in temporary wooden buildings called sukkahs. It's also considered a blessing to have visitors share the holiday with you; the Aramaic word for them, ushpizin, translates as "holy guests."

When "Ushpizin" opens, Moshe Bellanga (Rand) and his wife, Malli (Michal Bat Sheva Rand), relative newcomers to a Hasidic community, are too synagogue-mouse poor to be able to celebrate the holiday at all. But then Moshe remembers what a rabbi once said: "If something is lacking, it was either not prayed for, or not prayed for enough." So Moshe throws himself into ecstatic prayer and soon enough spending money and a sukkah both almost miraculously come his way.

This absolute belief in the deity as determiner of all things is "Ushpizin's" bedrock. Lines such as "We put our trust in God," "That's what God wanted," "God will not forsake us" and "Everything is God's plan" are constantly on its characters' lips, but director Gidi Dar has kept the tone so genial that the film never seems overbearing.

The couple's hope for guests also gets answered, but in a most unexpected way. Showing up at the sukkah are Eliyahu Scorpio (Shaul Mizrahi, a Harry Dean Stanton look-alike) and his pal Yossef (Ilan Ganani), a pair of escaped convicts who have a connection to Moshe's shady pre-Orthodox life.

Obviously, these guests are not exactly pillars of Talmudic rectitude, and though the convicts wonder just how sincere Moshe's change of life is, Moshe and Malli treat them as part of God's plan, as a test from the Almighty. A comedic clash between these oil-and-water lifestyles is inevitable, and "Ushpizin" works up some amiably funny moments as the Almighty's intentions for these people are slowly revealed.

A respectful comedy whose interest for most audiences will be part anthropological, "Ushpizin" walks an interesting line. While it only glancingly refers to some of ultra-orthodoxy's more controversial elements -- the childless Malli suggests her husband divorce her to marry someone potentially more fertile -- the film idealizes the community in an entertaining way.

"Ushpizin" was approved at the script stage by actor-writer Rand's rabbi, who felt it could diminish the tension that sometimes exists in Israel between secular and religious elements, and in this it seems to have succeeded. Which is kind of a miracle all by itself.



MPAA rating: PG-13 for mild thematic elements

Times guidelines: Some adult references

Released by Picturehouse. Director Gidi Dar. Producers Rafi Bukaee, Gidi Dar. Screenplay Shuli Rand. Cinematographer Amit Yasur. Editors Nadav Harel, Isaac Sehayek. Music Nethaniel Mechaly, Iosif Bardanashvili, Adi Ran. Art director Ido Dollev. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

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