Monday, November 24, 2008

Monday Movie Review: Ushpizin

Ushpizin (2004) 8/10
Moshe (Shuli Rand) and Malli (Michal Bat-Sheva Rand) are ultra-Orthodox Jews living in Jerusalem. Moshe is so broke that he cannot afford to prepare for the upcoming holiday of Sukkot. Praying for a miracle, he receives unexpected help. He also receives usphizin, holiday guests, which are considered a blessing, but these particular guests are not what anyone expected.

Shuli Rand was a popular Israeli actor who quit to live a religious life. He came back to acting for this movie only, which he also wrote, and the Israeli Film Academy awarded him with Best Actor for this film. As such, it is respectful of religious life, not gawky, but also not idealistic. The Jews of Moshe's neighborhood are deeply religious, but also argumentative and judgmental.

Moshe is a guy with a past, and his past is catching up with him. At one time a violent criminal, he longs for redemption. He and Malli also long for children, and the lack of this blessing is seen by them as a failing of faith. When an escaped con from Moshe's past shows up as a guest, Moshe is confronted by his own weakness, his desire to lie and be rid of these guests, warring within himself (and within his marriage) with his desire for piety and an open, welcoming heart.

The criminal guests are gently comic; they have no understanding of who these religious people are. Which works on several levels, putting the American viewer on equal footing. They continue to shake up the movie, and as much as these guys are jerks, we end up with a certain affection for them. Certainly they bring color to the screen.

Malli is a great character. Rand insisted that his wife be cast in this role, and their natural affection for each other works. She is strong, opinionated, devoted, and funny. I am charmed by seeing a heavier woman in this role, there are two few big women in the movies. It's especially notable because she is childless; the ghetto for heavy women tends to be Earth Mother.

So what are the themes here? Certainly miracles and prayer are important, escaping the past and living a good life. But I think we're also talking about anger. Moshe and Malli get angry at these rude, obnoxious guests. Eliyahu (Shaul Mizrahi—nominated for Best Supporting Actor for this film by the Israeli Film Academy) is angry that his old friend has changed. Malli is angry at Moshe, who has deceived her. Their anger is intense, and inevitable, and prevents each of them from doing what they truly wish to do.

I liked the bird's eye view of an enclave we rarely see in films. I liked these people, their passionate commitment to their lives and their deep feeling, I liked the joyfulness of their faith and the richness of their despair, and I loved their ability to laugh at themselves.