Tuesday, 25 April 2006

Ushpizin (2004)

An intimate look at how 10% of the population lives

The Israeli Film Festival returns to Singapore this month with an offering that showcases the rich and diverse culture and storytelling of its peoples. Its opening film, Ushpizin (Hebrew for “The Guests”), touches on the lives of an ultra-orthodox Hasidic community in Jerusalem. Often caricatured in secular culture as the bearded people with funny black hats, the Hasidim now have a film of their own, one that offers a non-judgemental and authentic inside look at the life and joys of their world. That their voices are now heard in cinemas is particularly important as Hasidic Jews number slightly over 10% of the population in Israel, and lead ascetic and secluded lives, far away from mainstream secular society.

Ushpizin is a comic drama, a modern parable about a poor Hasidic couple living in a tenement. Moshe (Shuli Rand), a recent convert, works as a rabbi at a Breslav yeshiva, where he depends on worshippers and the temple committee for his wages. It’s a day away from Sukkot (an important religious festival in the calendar which commemorates the 40 years of wandering in the desert in Exodus, and gives thanks to their God for providing for their needs), but the temple committee decides to withhold the stipend Moshe so desperately has been counting on. Penniless and heavily in debt, Moshe and loving wife Malli (Michal Bat-Sheva Rand) are simply out of luck. They have no money to buy the items necessary to observe the festival in the proper manner – three plants, a citron fruit (apparently the price of these items experience a shot in the arm during the festive season), and a sukkah hut.

It’s a testimony to their religious discipline and faith that the couple do not break down or remonstrate against their God. Instead, they smile and pray for a miracle – miracles can only happen if they pray hard enough about something they really want. Providence comes in the form of a last minute donation of $1000 from an American to the yeshiva, a gorgeous hand-me-down hut, and a priceless, perfect citron. What more can they ask for? Better yet, the couple even get to keep the commandment to host visitors in their sukkah, when two friends from Moshe’s past (played with glee by Shaul Mizrahi and Ilan Ganani) come to visit.

Of course, there’s a danger to making wishes: be careful what you ask for. Those friends are escaped convicts on the run and non-believers to boot. The optimism and unbridled joy of the first act (the couple are generally happy even in their poverty and even happier when succour arrives) quickly gives way to a moral play: Will the raucous and troublesome guests blow Moshe’s cover to his community and damage his marriage to Malli? Will Moshe and Malli keep (and find joy in) their religious obligation to extend their hospitality to their guests? Will this be Fiddler on the Roof meets A History of Violence?

The remarkable thing about Ushpizin is how it tries – and succeeds – to be many things at the same time. It is an intimate and authentic (but not romanticised) anthropological film set exclusively in a cloistered religious community. It is also a heart-warming and optimistic film about ordinary people going through the worst week of their lives. At times, it threatens to abruptly switch gears into a violent tragedy; while it never does, both director and writer have such a mastery over their material that the fine balance and the precarious tipping points are believable and emotionally real. It is also a parable, complete with tests of character for its protagonists, and offers subtle lessons on humility, faith, and joy.

As befits a modern parable, the plot advances through a barrage of coincidences and cosmic jokes that may put audiences off if they expect a realistic and gritty film. You’ll simply have to recognise what the film sets out to do, and adjust accordingly. If audiences can get past that, they will no doubt marvel at the performance and writing of Shuli Rand, who retired from stage and film acting some time ago after his conversion to the ultra-Orthodox faith nine years ago. His real life wife Michal Bat-Sheva Rand has her debut in Ushpizin (religious rules forbid Shuli from performing with a woman other than his wife), and she is a natural actor who often steals the scenes from Shuli. Their onscreen chemistry fills the cinema with sparks.

One is amazed at how long it has taken for the ultra-Orthodox to make films about themselves, animated by their worldview, devout spirituality, and infectious optimism. Just like how the Latter-Day Saints have surprised the world by making winsome comedies with Mormon cultural references like Napoleon Dynamite (2004) and Pride and Prejudice (2003), there is hope yet that Ushpizin will become a beachhead for Hasidic filmmaking.

No comments: