A Warmhearted, Upbeat Fable in an Exotic Setting
Ushpizin (2004) is a pleasant little film that takes place in an ultra-Orthodox community in modern-day Jerusalem, but its message is universal. The dialogue is in Hebrew, and the DVD provides English and Spanish subtitles. The story is about the clash between the religious and the secular, but what I like best about the movie is its humanism.
A Religious Couple Experiences a Miracle?
The central character in Ushpizin is Moshe Bellanga (Shuli Rand), a Hasidic Jew who is married to Malli (played by Shuli's wife Michal Bat-Sheva Rand). Moshe and Malli are poor, but they take comfort in their religion, which places an emphasis on spirituality and joy. They are strongly committed to their marriage of nearly five years, but it is a matter of paramount concern to them that they have no child.
When the film opens, Moshe and Malli are in dire financial straits. They're ducking their landlord and running low on food. But a charity picks them at random and anonymously delivers to them a thousand American dollars in cash. In the Bellangas' world-view, the money represents a miracle in answer to their prayers.
A Test of Faith?
The story is set during the festival of Sukkot, when each family in the Bellangas' community uses materials like plywood and palm fronds to make a temporary structure called a sukkah. During a week-long celebration, each family spends a lot of time inside their sukkah, and it's considered a blessing to entertain guests there. That's why Moshe is at first delighted when an old pal from his past unexpectedly drops by, accompanied by a friend, and he invites them to stay in his sukkah. However, the guests, who are escaped convicts and very secular, are so inconsiderate that they put stress on Moshe and Malli's marriage and threaten the harmony of the entire neighborhood. But the Bellangas try to be hospitable toward their rude guests anyway, believing that their faith is being tested.
The Thousand-Shekel Etrog
I always admire a film that introduces a physical object which symbolically captures the story's essence, and that function is filled in Ushpizin by an etrog. The etrog, a variety of citrus fruit rather similar to a lemon, plays a key role in a religious ritual observed during Sukkot. In the movie, Moshe spends a considerable amount of money to buy a particularly fine etrog, and we see him using it in a prayer. Also, he tells his wife about the etrog, "It's a 'blessing' for having boys." But much to Moshe's dismay, one of his secular guests mistakes the special piece of fruit for a lemon, cuts it up and uses the juice from it to flavor a salad.
Spirituality Balanced With Humor
Although Ushpizin is set among followers of a specific branch of Judaism, it seems to me the movie's appeal transcends any religion or belief. Dogma is avoided, and the issues that are explored are not uniquely Jewish. But what impresses me most about the film is its careful balancing of spirituality with humor. This is a gentle comedy, and so of course it has a happy ending.
On the Film's Title
English-language text appears on the screen at the beginning of the movie stating ushpizin is an Aramaic word for guests. Also, according to several Web sites (for example, aish.com), the word is used to refer collectively to seven revered historical figuresAbraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and Davidin the context that they may be invited to be spiritual guests in a sukkah. Presumably, the phrase "Holy Ushpizin" that appears in the film's English subtitles is a reference to the seven. Of course, the escaped convicts who are Moshe's guests are definitely unholy.
A Barebones DVD
Below I have given the details for the Ushpizin DVD, which contains no bonus materials.
Release Date: April 4, 2006
Feature Film Run Time: 1 Hour 92 Minutes
Anamorphic Widescreen (1.85:1), Color
MPAA Rating: PG for Mild Thematic Elements
Hebrew 2.0 Stereo Surround
English Captions for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing