By David D'Arcy
July 18, 2005 - 10:08 AM PDT
Ushpizin is a fable. Moshe and Mali, a born-again Hasidic couple in Jerusalem, have an abundance of faith, but they lack two essentials: money and a child. When preparing for the Succoth holiday compounds Moshe's anxieties, things get worse. A prisoner on the lam who knew Moshe in his wild secular days arrives at his door with a friend. Moshe reaches what seems to be the only logical conclusion - the Ushpizin, the guests, are a test from God.
The film drew huge attention on the festival circuit since the Berlinale, where I saw it. The buzz probably came from its novelty status as a movie about Hasidim shot in a neighborhood where Hasidim live, with Hasidim themselves playing almost all the roles. Hence the predictable "dog on its hind legs" reactions from the public and the critics: "Hey, they can really act," or, "It's so authentic." It's all the more of a curiosity when you witness reactions from Germans in Berlin.
The film is far more than novelty. Gidi Dar and his cast have made an age-old melodrama no less compelling for its faithfulness to a well-worn formula.
Don't look for politics or Palestinians here, or exotic shtetl-kitsch. The story of Ushpizin goes back as far back as explanations of why a merciful God permits hardship to befall uncomprehending mortals. That, as we know, is pretty far. But in our mass entertainment era, the clear sources are the stage melodramas of the late 19th and early 20th century, moral fables that transpose old biblical lessons and affirm faith and family. These were the same dramas that were adapted into Yiddish films in the 1920s and 30s. If you change the language from Yiddish to Hebrew and locate the story in Jerusalem, rather than in a Polish shtetl, you have most of the elements.
Yet the details make all the difference, and they don't rely on nostalgia. The actors in Yiddish films were often assimilated Jews who had to learn Yiddish for those roles. Not so in the case of Ushpizin. The couple playing Moshe and Mali are themselves born-again Hasidim. Shuli Rand (Moshe) acted on stage and screen in Israel until about ten years ago, when he vanished into the yeshivas of Jerusalem. Rand resurfaced with the idea for Ushpizin, but it's hard to know who he thought his audience would be, since Hasidim are not allowed to go to movies and can't be in theaters where men sit with women. And then there's the notion of idolatry. Movies are nothing if not temptation.
All of which makes the backstory worth telling. The director Gidi Dar convinced Rand's wife, Michal Bat Sheva Rand, and his rabbi to endorse the profane process of making a movie - with secular globalized Israelis (all men) working alongside Hasidim, plus rabinnical dispensations and breaks for prayer and dancing.
Let's not underestimate how hard it is to put this on the screen as a credible drama, rather than nostalgic kitsch. The Ultra-Orthodox have what can look like an exotic world unto themselves, but they are viewed as anything but charming in mostly secular Israel, where their political weight affects the whole population, even though they don't serve in the army or pay taxes. Drive through one of their neighborhoods on the Sabbath, if it isn't barricaded, and your car may be hit with rocks. This is not Fiddler on the Roof.
Earlier films set among the Hasidim have tended to be acted (or re-enacted) by secular actors and, because the subject is approached so rarely, they end up as "investigations" with an anthropological bent. If what you want here is ethnology, you still have it, with one less filter obscuring the subjects, since Hasidim are indeed playing themselves. There isn't much didactic explanation in Ushpizin other than the information that observant Jews build little houses or pavilions on Succoth.
Blustery and bearish, Shuli Rand inhabits the dilemma of a man with huge vulnerabilities - no money, no son - as you won't see it acted anywhere else, even in documentaries. Yet he's a trained actor, after all; his wife, though, isn't, and her performance is the big surprise here - tender and angry and as large as her husband's is, as she shifts from hope to disappointment, stymied by a reality that won't offer clues of a divine plan. Obviously, you can always explain away a fine performance like this by an amateur - in fifty takes, you'll inevitably get one that works - but her reaction shots and close-ups that deepen the drama point to something more inside than trial and error. For something like it, think of the great amateur performances in Iranian films like Jafar Panahi's The Circle.
But unlike Panahi's grim tale, this one has a happy ending - a nod to the requirements of melodrama? Don't confuse it with an endorsement of Ultra-Orthodoxy. Gidi Dar isn't saying that Hasidism is the "new black." He is suggesting that part of beginning to know this world is knowing the stories that those inside it tell.
Shuli Rand in Ushpizin
How did you meet Shuli Rand, who plays Moshe in Ushpizin?
I met him twenty years ago. Actually, the first time I met him, he was secular, of course. I was doing a short movie and he had just come out of acting school. I was introduced to him. I asked him if he was an actor and, when he said, "Yes," I put him in my next film. We've been friends for twenty years.
How did you get your hands on the script?
It's not that I just got the script. Shuli at that point had been religious for nine years, but we had stayed in touch. At one point, he told me that he had a story that's very similar to the one in the film, although his part in the real story was the man who finds a Succoth house for Moshe. We worked on the film's script together. What's unusual is that Ultra-Orthodox people don't make films at all. They don't watch films. They don't watch TV. They don't look at still pictures. So it's really unusual to have him involved at all.
So how did this film get made?
You can't say that the laws forbid this kind of activity completely, because that's open to interpretation. But remember, the First Commandment says: "I am the Lord They God, and Thou Shalt Not Put False Gods Before Me." That means you're not allowed to make physical gods, or pictures of God. And that's a big question about cinema because, as we know, cinema creates idols, all kinds of idols. So you'd have to say that their interpretation is correct, from their point of view.
But knowing what we were going to do - making a movie that enters their world from their point of view and shows things in a different way, not idolizing them, not making them megastars, or creating other gods - basically it's okay, according to that interpretation.
We had this rabbi, a great guy - the rabbi in the movie is very much influenced by him. I convinced him that I wasn't going to attack religious people, as was normally done. I told him that I was totally nonreligious and that, from my point of view, the movie was about the mind of the believer. It's a trip into his mind, which is on the verge of being mad, like all of us. By being so honest about that, I gained his trust. He understood that I'm not pretending to be a believer, and that I'm not going to give up my point of view. I told him that what was interesting was to enter his world, without objections, without reservations, and to see the fundamentalist life from within and accept it for an hour and a half.
After that, the rabbi told me that he thought the film was important for Israel, which can mean not just the state of Israel, but the Jewish people in general. But he also meant Israel in the sense of the extreme polarization between secular and non-secular, since there is serious hatred and suspicion. And he was right. This film helped diminish that hatred.
He supported us. First, he allowed Shuli to do it. He also allowed his deputy, a smart and shrewd guy, to be casting director. He was the one who found extras for us from some of the most radical groups like the Satmars and Breslauers, because the rabbi said it was a mitzvah. And these guys were the best actors ever. The only thing they asked for was a break every two hours to dance.
I insisted that there would be no secular actors at all, no fake beards, and that anybody who came had to be the real thing. In the beginning, I was afraid of my own requirement, but I'm glad I insisted, because that's what makes the story unique.
What other special rules were enforced?
The first was that there was no work on the Sabbath - no phone calls, nothing. We had to have a contract, because Jewish law demanded a contract. Shuli told me, "If you make a mistake, I'll lose my place in the next world." I thought, "If he really believes in that, who am I to go against it?" Also, Shuli was not allowed to act with other women, which meant he could only act with his wife. That made things difficult because she's not an actress and, in the beginning, she didn't want to do it. She ended up doing a great job.
Another rule was that there could not be women on the crew, at least not on the set. In the end, we put in a phone on the set, a hot line - red, of course - that went to directly to the rabbi, so that if we had an argument about a rule, the passion of the moment wouldn't stop a day of shooting. The red phone was a hot line; fortunately, this phone never rang.
It sounds as if the rules became your aesthetic.
It didn't bother me at all that the movie was very fundamental because I wanted to go into that world and to show that there were human beings in this world... they're all human, just like us. The rules are a bit different, I'll admit. But eventually, when you see the movie, you identify with them for an hour and a half, and then you understand that we're not that different. Everybody has tests, everybody believes in something and everybody lives in accordance with their beliefs and pays the price.
"Everybody" implies that there was an audience for Ushpizin.
The film was very successful in Israel, even with religious people who are not ultra-orthodox, with people who are allowed to go in theaters, and of course, they went to this movie. Secular people went to see it, too, and the reviews were great, from left wing to right wing.
Michal Bat Sheva Rand in Ushpizin
How do you account for good reviews from the left, when there's so much antipathy toward religious parties politically?
Even Ha'aretz, the left-wing newspaper, gave the film a good review. Normally they're not so tolerant of Ultra-Orthodox society. Their critic came to me and shook my hand and said, "Thank you for letting me love them for an hour and a half."
How unusual a reaction is that for a secular Israeli?
From Herzog onward, Israel is a country that denounced its origins, denounced Judaism as a religion. But there is a limit as to how far you can go with that because this country is a trend in Judaism. There's no way to bypass that. It can be a non-religious trend in Judaism, because otherwise, what is it, if not that? When you go to Israel, you see how secularists despise their heritage. There's a very strong rupture from the past, a disconnection. There's a denial of the past. Living in a four-thousand-year-old culture, I felt that it's very crucial to start talking, making a dialog with the past - not necessarily becoming religious, because I'm not, but having a dialog is very very important, and this film hit the core of the issue. This made it entertainment for them, and they identified with it for an hour and a half. This shook the country. It made a certain kind of cultural shock.
At the beginning, secular audiences were afraid. The reviews were great but people didn't want to go because of the religious nature of the film. All the poster showed was religious people. First some religious people started going, so theaters held the film over, but in October, at the time of the holidays, the crowds flooded into the cinemas. Everybody went. Everybody talked about it.
But how did the film reach the community that's depicted on the screen?
Somehow, a copy got on the internet. By the way, even before we finished, a rough-cut copy with a different ending that wasn't finished got out. We took a look on the net, and found five copies available, with hundreds of downloading options. Shuli then told me that in Orthodox neighborhoods, people on the street who had seen the scene of him cooking French fries for his guests started calling out to him, "Moshe, Moshe, how about some French fries?"
We realized that people were watching, so I went after my own statistic. I would go out on the street in Tel Aviv and ask Orthodox people there if they had seen the film and eighteen out of twenty admitted that they had seen it. The other two lied, and said they didn't see it.
I told them, "You know, it's illegal what you're doing." Then we had a strange phenomenon, of people trying to reach us to send money because they felt really bad about not paying for the movie. The religious newspapers did not say a word. The reason they didn't say a word was that most of them saw it and loved it. But they haven't written about it because they can't make it legitimate yet. Nobody wants to be the first to say, "Yes." Even the big rabbis - and some very big rabbis saw the movie, and cried and laughed.
Why didn't they go public and talk about the film?
I think they're not saying anything because they're scared. They saw the flood of people who rushed to see the film. It's a real story that talks about the subject that's most interesting to people - faith.
Ushpizin screens as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, running from July 21 through August 8 in four cities throughout the Bay Area.
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"This shook the country."
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Besides reviewing art and film for National Public Radio, David D'Arcy has also written for the Art Newspaper, the Economist and other publications.
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