Houseguests are more than couple bargained for



The supremacy of faith and the danger of bargaining with God, unless you're sure you're willing to pay the price, are graphically presented in Ushpizin, a modern-day fable set in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem.

The movie, written by and starring Israeli actor Shuli Rand, immerses its audience in a world few will have experienced, with results both life-affirming and surprisingly comedic. And for those who think they understand that ultra-Orthodox world ... well, they might be in for a surprise.

Rand stars as the devoutly religious Moshe Bellanga, facing possibly the most depressing Sukkot of his life. Sukkot, a seven-day commemoration of the Exodus, is normally the most festive of Jewish holidays, but not this year, at least not for Moshe Bellanga and his wife, Malli (Rand's real-life wife, Michal Bat Sheva Rand). The couple are dirt poor, they've been unable to have the son they both want so desperately and both are having the occasional difficulty reconciling their piety and faith with their lot in life.

As if that weren't enough, the Bellangas face the more immediate problem of not having enough money to properly celebrate Sukkot. They can't afford the various foods and accessories required for the holiday; they don't even have a Succah, a temporary dwelling in which the devout live during the holiday.

Despairing, Moshe prays to God - not for guidance, but for a miracle.

And then miracles start coming, first in the form of a Succah Moshe is assured no one else wants, then in an unexpected gift of money, and finally in the arrival of a pair of houseguests - seen as a welcome gift from God, since Ushpizin, or houseguests, are viewed as a special blessing during Sukkot.

What Malli doesn't know is that her guests are escaped convicts, one of whom, Eliyahu (Shaul Mizrahi), is an associate of her husband's from his less-devout days. The two men seem more intent on taking advantage of their hosts' generosity than sharing in their holiday.

Soon, both Bellangas are finding their faith tested by the behavior of these two men. The question is, are they being tested by God? Or have they made a mistake, one that began when they doubted God's plan and that could threaten their marriage?

Much of Ushpizin's strength comes from its powerful performances. For Shuli Rand, one of Israel's most prominent stage actors before embracing ultra-Orthodoxy in 1996, this is his first screen role in eight years, and his onscreen charisma remains formidable.

But the most compelling aspect of Ushpizin may be the glimpses it offers into the ultra-Orthodox world, amid the suspicion that much of what we're seeing reflects Rand's personal struggle to balance his secular life as an actor with his devout religious beliefs. The world of Ushpizin, its rituals and tenets, may be unknown to most of us, may seem strange and even archaic, but that's where the differences end. Jew or Gentile, a good story well told is a thing to be cherished.

Ushpizin (Picturehouse Entertainment).

Starring Shuli Rand, Michal Bat Sheva Rand, Shaul Mizrahi.

Directed by Giddi Dar.

Rated PG.

Time 90 minutes (in Hebrew, with English subtitles).


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