Movie miracles and houseguests from hell

By Brooks Robards - June 15, 2006

"Be careful what you wish for," goes the old bromide that drives the charming, warm-hearted comedy "Ushpizin," coming to the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center for Father's Day this Sunday. This is a movie that focuses on the trials and tribulations of a newly devout rabbinical student, Moshe, and his wife, Malli, who live in an orthodox Hasidic neighborhood in Jerusalem.

Directed by Giddi Dar in an unusual collaboration between secular and orthodox Israelis, it is so well done and so humane in its adept blend of secular values and orthodoxy that you won't once think you're in Sunday School.

The word Ushpizin comes from the Aramic for Holy Guest, and the movie opens on the eve of Judaism's harvest holiday, Succoth, a time when guests are especially cherished. That's where getting what you wish for comes into the plot, since Moshe and Malli end up with guests from Hell.

During Succoth, traditional Jewish families build and live in temporary shelters, called succah, as a reminder of their exodus from Egypt and of the impermanence of life. Succoth is a time to share harvest plenty with others, and the ritual involves Four Species - plants that carry special meaning during the seven-day holiday celebrations - date palms, myrtle, willow, and citron. A special, exorbitantly expensive citron, "the diamond," plays a role in this cinematic parable about bounty, hospitality, and faith.

Unfortunately for Moshe and Malli, the larder is bare, their bank account empty, and no succah shelter is in sight. Even more serious, the couple has not been blessed with offspring despite five years of marriage. Moshe is a would-be father in a patriarchal society where progeny, especially the male variety, matter greatly.

He sits on a park bench and prays for a miracle, while Malli, hardly a shrinking violet, does pretty much the same thing at home. And miracles do come fast and furious, first in the form of a suddenly available succah, and then through a $1,000 anonymous gift slipped under the couple's door. Life turns good, so when two jailbirds on the lam, friends of Moshe's from his past, pre-religious days, show up to mooch off their reformed buddy, the couple is happy to share their miraculous bounty with their "Holy Guests." Their generosity, however, gets tested to the limit.

Crooks that they are, Eliyahu, played by Shaul Mizrahi, and his cohort Yosef, played by Ilan Ganan, exploit their status as guests, practically eating Moshe and Maul out of house and succah and causing such a ruckus in their religious neighborhood that the elders call the cops. As in any good parable, though, they're not really all that bad, and the trouble they stir up ends up more comical than sad.

Far from being holier-than-thou types, Moshe and Malli make their religious devotion both appealing and funny without undercutting its seriousness and conservatism. Shuli Rand, who plays Moshe, led a successful career on stage and screen before joining an ultra-conservative Israeli religious community. He brings to bear his extensive experience as an actor to create an inherently lovable and satisfyingly nuanced character. His wife, Michal Bat-Sheva Rand, who plays Malli, performs with equal skill and naturalism, even though she brings no other acting experience to the role. In many ways she steals the show through her clever manipulations of her husband and a society that severely limits her public role. It's clear who rules the roost at home.

At a time when American media conglomerates have found it convenient to peddle religion in some rather unattractive ways - "The DaVinci Code's" sideswipe at the Catholic Church comes to mind, as does HBO's crass exploitation of Morman beliefs in "Big Love" - "Ushpizin" brings a welcome breath of fresh air to a worthwhile topic. Rabbi Caryn Broitman will provide a brief introduction to the film, which is sponsored by the Martha's Vineyard Film Society in cooperation with the Hebrew Center.

"Ushpizin," Sunday, June 18, 8 pm, Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center, Center Street, Vineyard Haven. Tickets are $6, $4 for Martha's Vineyard Film Society members.

Brooks Robards is a poet, author, and former college film instructor. She frequently contributes stories on art, film, and poetry to The Times.