Saturday, November 17, 2007

Ushpizin

The word refers to "guests" in Aramaic, and an Israeli movie by that title gives an American viewer a most hospitable welcome to a Breslover neighborhood in Jerusalem. The simple genius of the film is how this joyous comedy about nightmarish guests at Sukkot actually turns the viewer into an honored guest in the home of a Hasidic family devoted to Torah and prayer.

Ushpizin (2004) was written by its lead actor, Shuli Rand, who was an acclaimed artist in Israel before he became devoutly religious in 1996. Rand struggled with this dual commitment, and did not appear on screen for eight years: until he starred, in this film, as the put-upon yeshiva student Moshe Bellanga. Rand would not play opposite a woman other than his real wife, and thus Mrs. Michal Bat Sheva Rand made her acting debut playing Bellanga's devoted and fiery wife.

The plot has the qualities of a beautiful fable and is rich with comic possibilities. A rabbi and his wife, struggling through hard financial times, unable even to scrape together the shelter in which they must dwell for Sukkot, pray fervently for a miracle - and rejoice when an anonymous gift of cash comes through for them. Then a pair of escaped convicts show up and take full advantage of the couple's hospitality, where they are welcomed as "holy guests." The rascals wreak havoc with the ritual, the neighborhood, and the couple's marriage. Their faith and their relationship is tested as they wonder, in all sincerity, whether something is going terribly wrong or whether God is simply testing them.

As the shady buffoons get a gentle and understated education about Jewish devotion, Breslover-style (with direct and sincere prayer, forgiveness, humility, and explosive joy) - so do we. One of the most touching performances I have seen on camera is the scene in which Bellanga secludes himself to a park bench and speaks directly and conversationally with God in a monologue that was almost hard to watch for being so open-hearted and tender. A single moment of nakedness like that can sear a performance into your memory for a lifetime.

Indeed, prayer is very much a part of the story and the everyday life of these protagonists, who are ordinary and likeable people. It struck me as sad and foolish that Hollywood won't make movies about people like this. When Hollywood produces a religious movie, it's going to be a movie about Jesus or a television mini-series about Moses; or it will be Narnia since that has wider appeal.

But a movie about ordinary folks who pray every day, without treating prayer as something freakish or ridiculous? I haven't checked the listings today but I don't think that movie is playing at The Grove. As someone raised in a very secular household, who was not raised around open prayer, I am someone producers might worry about. Viewers like me might feel alienated and run away from a movie where prayer is endemic. Yet I did not feel alienated in the slightest. I felt like an honored quest.

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