Every now and then, I come across a film of such unexpected charm and emotional power that I find myself compelled to recommend it to anyone and everyone who will listen.
Ye shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are Israelites born shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God (Lev 23:42-43).
Every now and then, I come across a film of such unexpected charm and emotional power that I find myself compelled to recommend it to anyone and everyone who will listen. Pavel Lungin’s Ostrov, which I reviewed here several months ago, is just such a film, as is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s frighteningly powerful Passion of Joan of Arc. But perhaps the best example of my "Recommend at All Costs" compulsion is the Jewish film Ushpizin (The Holy Guests) — a film about the miraculous power of prayer and the importance of maintaining a simple, childlike faith.
Made nearly four years ago, it recounts the story of Moshe and Malli Bellanga: a devout, childless Chasidic couple struggling to make ends meet in the modern-day city of Jerusalem. The feast of Sukkot (most commonly known as the Festival of Booths) is fast approaching, and the Bellangas find themselves financially incapable of making the necessary preparations for the feast. (Sukkot commemorates the 40 years that the Israelites spent wandering the desert after their escape from Egypt; an exile the Jewish community recalls by the building of temporary shelters, or sukkahs, such as their ancestors would have constructed in the wilderness.)
Desperate to celebrate the feast in the prescribed manner, Moshe and his wife lay siege to heaven with their prayers, never once doubting that Hashem will provide. And He does indeed provide, with a promptness and profusion that leaves the faithful pair overwhelmed. The scenes of Moshe’s prayer and Malli’s thanksgiving are especially moving and memorable — and the latter is a high-ranking entry on the list of "Most Appropriate Use of Chasidic Pop Music." (Of course, it’s a short list.)
However, God also supplies them with a little more than they prayed for: two unexpected (and most definitely unholy) guests appear on their doorstep, bringing with them the memories of Moshe’s troubled past, as well as the revelation that he is a Baal teshuva: "one who has done repentance." Moshe and his wife struggle to deal with the unexpected strain these unwelcome recollections bring to their marriage, as well as the community’s reactions to the defiantly non-kosher attitudes of their two "guests."
Despite the fairly predictable fashion in which the story unfolds, the film is filled with charming and unexpectedly insightful details. The extraordinary chemistry between Moshe and Malli — praying, arguing, complaining, sorrowing, and coming to love one another more through it all — is the real backbone of the piece, and the nuances explored in their relationship make the film eminently re-watchable. Plus, its finale features a "Come to Hashem" moment that is as satisfying and cathartic as one could possibly hope for.
Although the story bears a more-than-passing similarity to Amos Gitai’s Kadosh (a bleak, award-winning Jewish film from 1999 that focuses on the "heartless" way in which Orthodox Jews deal with infertility), Ushpizin stands apart from its Jewish art-house counterpart by virtue of its overwhelmingly positive, joy-filled portrayal of the Chasidic community: faithful, religious men and women who are committed to a "harsh" code of morality, belief, and self-sacrifice, and a group all too often either unfairly dismissed or brutally dissected by the film industry. As the New York Times‘s Stephen Holden recounts, this film is above all "a joyful affirmation of unshakable faith."
The story behind the film is almost as remarkable. Shuli Rand, the film’s screenwriter as well as its star, was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household but left his traditional beliefs and practices behind to enter the Nisan Nativ Acting Studio in Tel Aviv. After several years of astonishing success — Rand was named Israel’s Theater Actor of the Year several times — he experienced a profound conversion and returned to the faith of his fathers, moving to Jerusalem to study under Rabbi Shalom Arush.
Israeli director Giddi Dar, who had previously worked with Rand on the 1992 feature Eddie King, convinced the former actor to consider an artistic return, arguing that there was much good to be done by creating a positive cinematic portrayal of Chasidim. As Dar himself said, "There have been films done about this society in the past, but they’ve always been done from the outside using actors and usually from a very critical point of view. I wasn’t interested in criticizing them."
Finally, with the persuasive assistance of Rabbi Arush himself, Rand agreed to make the film, but with two important conditions: Dar and his production company must promise to forbid the showing of the film in Israel on the Sabbath, and Michal Bat-Sheva Rand — Shuli’s actual wife and the mother of his seven children — must play the role of Malli.
The director agreed, and the film was made with the full-throated support of Jerusalem’s Orthodox Jewish community. After its Sabbath-free run in Israel, the film headed out into deeper waters, appearing as an official selection at the 2005 Rotterdam Film Festival, and making its American debut at Tribeca. Sadly, though it ran for nearly 14 weeks in the States, it brought in barely over $1.5 million — yet another indication of how unnecessary is the link between cinematic quality and box-office success.
Experiencing the film’s wonderfully realized mood of joy and contentment in finding and doing the will of the Almighty is truly a rewarding cinematic experience. There is something refreshingly Capraesque in its insistence on the fundamental goodness of human nature, and on the unimaginable appropriateness with which God answers our prayers. Few movies are as unrepentant in their portrayal of the underlying confidence and happiness faith brings to every situation, no matter how difficult.
But perhaps the most compelling aspect of the film is its ability to provide Catholic audiences with an emotional reminder of the profound and unbreakable link between Judaism and Christianity. It is a work steeped in the customs and traditions of an entirely different religion, yet it conveys a vague (and sometimes inexplicable) sense of familiarity that prevents these same traditions and customs from ever feeling truly foreign. A friend once remarked that Ushpizin was "the most religious, most deeply Catholic movie" he’d seen since Babette’s Feast — and he was absolutely right.
Pope Paul VI’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions — a work referenced repeatedly by Pope Benedict XVI in his message to the Jewish community delivered during his recent visit to the States — discusses the "great spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews." It reminds us that the Church must never forget "that she draws sustenance from the root of that well-cultivated olive tree onto which have been grafted the wild shoots, the Gentiles." Think of Ushpizin as the film version of Nostra Aetate.