Ushpizin is a powerful object lesson in the interaction between the worlds of the religious and the secular, pairing a secular Jewish director, Gidi Dar, with an Orthodox writer-star, Shuli Rand. Ending his theatrical and film career to pursue his religious studies, Rand agreed to write and appear in Ushpizin only after Dar included a number of religious concessions, including the prohibition of Sabbath screenings and the inclusion of Rands wife, Michal Bat Sheva Rand, as his characters wife.
Explicitly an exploration of Orthodox Jewish life, Ushpizin follows Mosche Bellanga (Rand) and his wife Malli on the Jewish holiday of Succoth, during which Jews stay in temporary dwellings in remembrance of their nomadic exodus. Taking its name from the Hebrew word for guests, the films principal complication arises when two escaped convicts, one of Mosches old associates, Eliyahu (Shaul Mizrahi), and his sidekick Yossef (Ilan Ganani), arrive during the couples Succoth. While guests are considered a good sign, the pairs atrocious and irreverently profane behaviour complicates Mosche and Mallis lives, compounding the existing tension between the couple and leading Mosche toward a crisis of faith.
But while the differences between secular, North American and Orthodox Jewish mores may be pronounced, Ushpizin relies on familiar archetypes that, while explicitly spiritual, bear striking similarities to the world of secular film.
Where Scrooge struggles through didactic flashbacks of religiously ambiguous spirits to learn the true meaning of the holidays, Mosche abides the insufferable boorishness of his uninvited guests as he struggles to learn to submit his will totally to Gods. Where North American screens see soulmates run through crowded airports in demonstration of their devotion to an abstracted notion of destiny, Mosche collapses in a final screaming prayer begging for understanding a sort of spiritual sprint to exhaustion.
North American films are loathe to include direct appeals to any god, yet continue to hold to the conventions of faith and suffering that underlie Ushpizin. Whether their protagonists discover the true meaning of Christmas or hold on to their belief in love, these films rely deeply on a kind of faith that is fully realized by Rand as a spiritual struggle.
From the perspective of a secular Canadian audience, the accoutrement of Moshes orthodoxy may seem alien and incomprehensible. But in imbuing these objects with his devotion, both Rand and his fictitious Mosche create tangible reminders of their devotion to their faith and their willingness to accept the lessons of an unseen god.
Mosches final revelation does not send him skipping through the streets of Jerusalem with shouts of "God bless us, every one," or on an airport sprint to catch his departing wife. His appeals are directed explicitly toward God, and he struggles to find his place in a plan that has nothing to do with destiny.
The chemistry between Shuli and Michal Bat Sheva is undeniable, despite an Orthodox prohibition requiring the complete absence of any physical contact. Their love for one another and the tension inherent in their continued failure to have a child is conveyed with engaging sincerity. But Mosches character suffers in Rands screenplay, losing an opportunity for further depth in the shallow treatment of his checkered past, with Eliyahu revealing more than Mosche ever shows. The result is a drama that is instructive and passionate while paradoxically retaining many of the lighter connotations associated with western films grounded in revelations and destiny, such as the holiday special or romantic comedy.
At once alien and familiar, Ushpizin is a reminder that faith and the secular world are not nearly as far apart as they often appear.