By Shawn McKenzie 11/18/2005
Since I am not religious in any aspect, it is hard for me to identify with any specific religion. The movie Ushpizin didn’t appeal to me, because it was hard to understand it all.
Moshe Bellanga (Shuli Rand, who is also the writer of the movie) is a recently converted rabbi to the Orthodox Breslau Chasidim who has fallen on hard times. The festive holiday of Succoth (a seven-day Jewish holiday that celebrates the Exodus from Egypt) is coming up, and he is without the things needed to celebrate the holiday. First, he doesn’t have a succah, which is a temporary shelter used to house some ushpizin…the Orthodox word for “holy guests.” Second, he doesn’t have the money to buy the “four species” (fruits and flowers) in order to celebrate the holiday: date palm branches (lulav), myrtle (hadas), willow (aravos), and citron (esrog; it looks like a lemon.) The fourth species is actually the most important one, because it is supposed to be used in a blessing for a male child. Moshe and his wife Malli (Shuli’s real-life wife Michal Bat Sheva Rand) have been married for five years now, and they have yet to be blessed with a child. Malli suggests that Moshe should pray a little harder with his rabbi (Daniel Dayan), and maybe their problems will be solved. He does just that, and things start to happen. A yeshiva friend named Ben Baruch (Avraham Abutboul) finds a supposedly abandoned succah for Moshe and Malli to use, and an anonymous American representative (Yizhak Levkovits) to the Orthodox community from a charitable organization slips $1000 under their door. Moshe uses some of the money to buy “the diamond,” which is believed to be the most perfect citron in all of Jerusalem, from the ethrog assessor (Michael Vaigel.) Not long after setting up the succah and purchasing the four species do they receive their own ushpizin: Eliyahu Scorpio (Shaul Mizrahi) and his friend Yossef (Ilan Ganani.) Eliyahu and Moshe were friends back in his violent “criminal days” before Moshe found religion. Eliyahu and Yossef have recently escaped from prison and now have taken residence in the succah (this is a fact that Malli doesn’t know.) They smoke, drink, play loud music, act rude to their hosts at the dinner table, and generally tick off their relatively conservative community. At one point, Moshe and Malli make up an excuse to get rid of them, but their guests eventually come back. The couple considers their vulgar guests at test from God, and they hope that it will be a blessing in the end for their life and marriage.
Shuli and director Giddi Dar worked with Shuli’s rabbi, Shalom Arush, in order to make a movie that fit within the boundaries of the ultra-Orthodox religion. That meant that they couldn’t work on the Sabbath, and Shuli couldn’t act opposite a woman who wasn’t his wife. Since Michal wasn’t a professional actress and had never been in a movie before, it presented a problem for them. Fortunately, she did a good job, and their chemistry as a real married couple translated onscreen.
Unfortunately, with all of the religious language and expressions presented in this movie, it made the movie a little dull and rather confusing. It tried to be funny, and in some parts, it was, but overall, I wasn’t crazy about it.
Ushpizin might be appealing to Jewish people, but it might be hard to attract audiences of different faiths. Combine that with the fact that it is presented in the Hebrew language with English subtitles, the movie might not pull in the general movie crowds. I could be wrong though. Another deeply religious movie, last year’s The Passion of the Christ, made over $300 million, so maybe it will do well. Despite some decent acting, I just couldn’t see myself watching this movie again. I guess that wouldn’t make me a very good ushpizin.
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