By Davd D'Arcy
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.
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