October 7 – Ushpizin – A Movie For Sukkot

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Guess Who Is Coming for Sukkot? Unbelievers.

Its warmhearted vision of marriage among Hasidic Jews is also radically different from the depiction of anguished female subservience to patriarchal authority portrayed in movies like Boaz Yakin’s “A Price Above Rubies” and Amos Gitai’s “Kadosh.” That’s because the screenwriter, Shuli Rand, and his wife, Michal Bat Sheva Rand, who play a beleaguered married couple, are themselves ultra-Orthodox.

Mr. Rand, who won an Israeli Film Academy Award for his performance, was formerly a secular Jew. With permission from his rabbi, he teamed up with the director, Gidi Dar, an old friend, to make the movie.

The Rands’ characters, Moshe and Malli Bellanga, are a devout but childless couple struggling to make ends meet. Both are intensely emotional. A robust woman with a temperament as fiery as her husband’s, Ms. Rand’s Malli may follow the patriarchal rules, but she’s the furthest thing from a wilting handmaiden bowing and scraping before her master.

“Ushpizin” (the title, roughly translated from Aramaic, means “holy guests” and is pronounced OOSH-piz-in) reflects Mr. Rand’s secular-to-Hasidic history by imagining that Moshe’s wild past suddenly catches up with him. And the scraps of information revealed about his younger days suggest that he was once a formidable hell-raiser.

As the story begins, Moshe and Malli are wringing their hands in anxiety. It’s the eve of Sukkot, a seven-day religious holiday celebrating the fall harvest. The Bellangas have neither the money to build a sukkah, a tentlike structure occupied by holiday celebrants during the festivities, nor the money to buy food for the weeklong feast. Both worry that the cause of their poverty is Malli’s infertility after five years of marriage, and both pray continuously and loudly for God’s help.

Lo and behold, miracles arrive. A donation of $1,000 from a yeshiva is slipped under their door, and a friend of Moshe’s gives them a sukkah. What appears to be another miracle occurs when Moshe’s old friend Eliyahu (Shaul Mizrahi) knocks on their door, accompanied by Yossef (Ilan Ganani), a goofy sidekick with a shaved head.

Unbeknownst to the Bellangas, Eliyahu and Yossef have just escaped from prison and are actually hiding from the police. Eventually, the guests go too far. After demanding money from Malli to buy meat, they set up an outdoor grill, blast pop music on a portable sound system and dance around wildly, incensing the neighbors.

Stylistically “Ushpizin” belongs to a classic tradition of raucous Yiddish comedy that is easy to enjoy if taken lightly. At the same time, it sustains a double vision of ultra-Orthodox life. To outsiders, the Bellangas’ blind trust and constant praying make them look like patsies exploited by buffoonish, unscrupulous crooks. To the faithful it is more likely to be taken as a joyful affirmation of unshakable faith, humorously exaggerated, of course, but an affirmation nonetheless.

“Ushpizin” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It has strong language and mild violence.

Directed by Gidi Dar; written (in Hebrew, with English subtitles) by Shuli Rand; director of photography, Amit Yasur; edited by Nadav Harel and Isaac Sehayek; music by Nethaniel Mechaly, Iosif Bardanashvili and Adi Ran; art director, Ido Dollev; produced by Rafi Bukaee and Mr. Dar; released by Picturehouse. Running time: 91 minutes.

WITH: Shuli Rand (Moshe Bellanga), Michal Bat Sheva Rand (Malli Bellanga), Shaul Mizrahi (Eliyahu Scorpio), Ilan Ganani (Yossef), Avraham Abutbul (Ben Baruch) and Yonathan Danino (Gabai).