by Jeff Meyers
Like a Hassidic version of A History of Violence made for the Family Channel, screenwriter Shuli Rands comic Yiddish parable Ushpizin examines how a peaceful mans faith is tested when hes visited by his criminal past.
A popular Israeli stage and screen star, Rand became an Orthodox Jew in 1996 and seemingly retired. But after eight years, he approached secular director Giddi Dar with his script about a Hassidic couple opening their home to two escaped convicts during the harvest festival of Sukkot.
After securing permission from a local rabbi and agreeing to a strict set of rules no Saturday screenings, no professional actress could be hired Rand cast himself and his wife, Michal Bat-Sheva Rand, as a beleaguered childless couple.
Set in an insular Jerusalem enclave, penniless scholar Moshe is humiliated that he and Malli cant afford to build a sukkah, a makeshift shelter the holiday requires Jews to temporarily live in. The couple prays to God for help. Miraculously, an envelope with $1,000 arrives on their doorstep, at the very same moment a sympathetic friend delivers a mysteriously discarded sukkah. Moshe becomes convinced that hes been blessed by God.
But as most fables show us, every blessing brings with it a curse. Two escaped convicts suddenly burst in from Moshes past looking for food and shelter. Taking these ushpizin (which translates as holy guests) to be a test of their hospitality, the couple warmly welcomes the scurvy criminals into their home, only to find their faith and marriage tested instead. Trashing his home and tormenting his neighbors, these uncouth crooks pick at the scab that covers Moshes formerly violent heart. If that werent bad enough, Moshe discovers that his heaven-sent sukkah was actually lifted from a neighbors yard. At his wits end, the careworn scholar pleads with God to help him control his temper.
Dar and Rand immerse us in the everyday life of Jewish orthodoxy with effortless authenticity, revealing a culture that is typically hidden from view. Though the film is steeped in the rituals of its religion, there are flourishes of modern humor and irreverence, giving Ushpizin a folksy charm that recalls the work of Isaac Bashevis Singer.
The movie works best when presenting the couples devotion to each other. Their affectionate squabbles demonstrate a marital rapport that is both sincere and infectious. Though the story focuses on Moshe, the charismatic and full-figured Bat-Sheva, a first time actress, shines as Malli and nearly runs away with the film.
For a little while, its unclear if the film is meant to be a thriller about the return of a characters violent past, or a religious comedy-drama about faith. When the villains turn out to be little more than cartoons and a fairy tale ending ties everything up with a bright shiny bow, it becomes clear Rand isnt striving for psychological complexity or realism. Instead, his deceptively gentle folktale espouses the noble pursuit of tolerance, charity and forgiveness.
However, the tale spotlights those who turn to God only in a time of crisis. Answered prayers remedy almost every complication Moshe and Malli face. This gives their devotion to God an unintended selfish spin.
Still, the films unique sense of place and its endearing couple should transcend cultural barriers and leave the audience captivated.
At the Birmingham 8, 211 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-644-3456.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to email@example.com.