Of God and Guests

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.

Joseph Susanka
writes from Lander, Wyoming.

Joseph Susanka


Joseph Susanka has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since his graduation from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. Currently residing in Lander, Wyoming -- "where Stetsons meet Birkenstocks" -- he is a columnist for Crisis Magazine and the Patheos Catholic portal.

  • Scott Johnston

    Thanks for this article! I saw this film in Washington, DC during its limited run in the U.S. and I absolutely loved it! I wholeheartedly agree it is one of the most Catholic films I have seen. There is much to appreciate about it.

    I especially loved that this film:

    1) depicts heartfelt prayer in a beautifully realistic, heartfelt, earthy, and respectful way. Prayer is shown to be something that for people of deep faith is very much alive–dynamically woven into the fabric of their life in a very real, meaningful, human manner–not like some static, disconnected greeting card image of prayer.

    2) portrays strict orthodox Jewish life in a wonderfully attractive light–and it is not a thinly disguised propaganda piece (as some bad Christian films are). I was able to emotionally identify very strongly with the faith of the protagonists in a way that was powerful and exhilarating. I greatly admired the honesty and earnestness of Moshe and Malli’s struggles with God. Were they real and not fictional, I would love to be a dinner guest in their home sharing experiences of God with them!

    3) has a depiction of marriage that is beautiful. It shows a couple going through a serious bump in their relationship, yet, spousal love wins out in the end. But the great thing about this is that their problems are not worked out in a saccharine, fake, shallow way. It comes across as a very realistic portrayal of the power of authentic love, forgiveness, and faith, to bind together and heal wounds in a relationship. And somehow in the human messiness of life, it actually seems to shine a light on the mysterious glory of human life specifically in and through the messy details. The fact that the two actors are married in real life explains the wonderful realism in their portrayal!

    4) portrays a life of devout faith as something very integrated (incarnational!) with every aspect of life. This is not a faith of the Sabbath only. It is a faith of every day, of every moment. And it shows that a life consciously lived in continual contact with God is not an inhuman prison (as some imagine) but actually an empowering thing liberating the human person, not for ease, but for a life that is fully engaged in that which is most deeply meaningful.

    If you have not seen this movie, definitely see it! It’s one to purchase and keep to show friends who will be grateful you did.

  • Joseph Susanka

    The first item on your list, Scott, is the one that made the most dramatic impression on me when I first saw the film. The others became more apparent through repeated viewings, but the way Moshe and Malli pray under any and all circumstances – grief, anger, gratitude, confusion, hope, etc. – is incredibly inspiring. (The scene where Moshe begs God to release him from his anger is fabulous.)

    As for #2, the fact that Shuli Rand clearly drew on his own life story, and the fact that Malli is played by his actual wife gives me hope that dinner at the Rand household would actually be as close to the meal displayed in the film as possible. Only there would be seven kids there, as well…

    They are extraordinary people; I hope we will be given the opportunity to benefit from their artistic ability and incredibly faith some time in the future. I had read somewhere that Dar is working to persuade Rand to make another film with him. I pray for his success.

    (And as one who has already watched the film, I ask you: is it possible to forget Ata Kadosh in that context? I love nearly every frame of the film, yet if anyone brings up Usphizin, it’s the way that song is used that spring to my mind every time.)

  • Scott Johnston

    Yes, Joseph, I agree. That scene with Malli instantly plunging her whole self in a prayer of worship to God to the sound of music that happened to come on the radio at that moment is wonderful. A beautiful, spontaneous, and so seemingly genuine moment of lived faith!

    I am a convert to Catholicism. My embrace of the Catholic faith and my conscious, wholehearted embrace of Christianity for the first time in my life (though I was baptized as a baby) happened together (they were nearly synonymous movements). And, though I am not charismatic, I can remember moments early after my conversion when certain religious songs indeed could become vehicles of deeply moving prayer for me. And the accompanying spiritual fervor was not mainly passion for the music, but the stirrings of a newly awakened soul straining to worship God who is so worthy beyond what anyone could ever give. This sort of experience can leave one’s eyes ripe with tears of joy over a new life that one had never before even hoped to dream was possible.

    Yes, that marvelous scene with Ata Kadosh serving as a spontaneous instrument of praise was awesome! Malli’s enthusiasm for God in that scene is infectious.

    This is a great example of the incarnational (i.e. Catholic) quality of the film. A thing created by man–a song–becomes the initiating spark and the accompanying medium by which a person’s soul is plunged into a time of praise. What a beautiful picture of the simple joy and spontaneity of a faith-filled life!

    I just did a search and came up with this article which you may be interested in:

    It’s an interview with the Jewish musician, Adi Ran, who recorded the very song Ata Kadosh used in the film. It mentions the scene with Malli specifically. There are interesting similarities between him and Shuli Rand in both having gone through a conversion to a life of devout Hassidic faith.

    It would be great if this artistic team could produce more art of this character and honesty.

    Thanks for bringing back to mind this film which I have to consider one of my all time favorites!

  • Joseph Susanka

    Thanks for the link, Scott, and for the insight you can provide as a convert – an interesting perspective, to be sure.

    Although it has rarely been connected to what one might categorize as “pop music,” I have certainly experienced the “music as prayer” aspect you’re talking about. I’m certainly not above using Bach or Beethoven to help me speak with God.

    Here is another link, this time to an article about Rand himself. Apparently, he has been delving more and more into the musical side of things: http://tinyurl.com/5bjty3

  • Nathan Cushman

    Because of this article I decided to see this movie. It was quite good, and I think I might buy the DVD.


  • Joseph Susanka

    Nathan Cushman wrote: Because of this article I decided to see this movie. It was quite good, and I think I might buy the DVD.


    Excellent, Nathan! I’m glad you enjoyed it, and that I was able to bring it to your attention. It’s amazing how many of these “little” films can fly under the blockbuster radar. Sometimes they deserve to be unnoticed. But every now and then — as with Ushpizin — one can really benefit from digging back into the past a little…