Ha-Ushpizin (2004) Poster

(2004)

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Thoroughly enjoyable -- groundbreaking secular-religious Israeli work
Richie Sevrinsky2 January 2005
Positive depictions of haredi (so-called-ultra-Orthodox) lifestyle in film, whether American or Israeli, are not common. "Ushpizin" is a delightful little tale, almost a fable, with quite a bit of hidden depth.

Newly religious Moshe and Mali (real-life couple Shuli and Michal Bat-Sheva Rand) desperately need a miracle to get through the holiday of Sukkot. Without any support from Moshe's yeshiva, they are about to be overwhelmed by back rent and other debts. Strict believers in the Breslov tradition, they pray for a miracle, even as it unfolds (a brilliant 3-way inter-cut sequence that is the highlight of the film). Their joy is short-lived, however, when Elihayu and Yosef, unexpected guests from Moshe's pre-Haredi life, join them for the holiday.

The film is surprisingly honest -- Moshe and Mali are placed in the uncomfortable position of practicing genuine hospitality and tolerance to those who attitudes and actions place them diametrically opposed to everything the haredi couple stand for. Indeed, when Eliyahu and Yosef blast their music in the middle of the haredi neighborhood, a lynch mob nearly forms, the isolationist side of Haredi life raising its ugly head to keep its own courtyards clean of the outside world. There is a certain sense in the movie that Breslov chasidim distinguish themselves from the other sects in truly practicing love and outreach, coupled with unshakable belief.

Shuli Rand's portrayal of Moshe, which is probably more than a bit autobiographical, is dead-on: conflicted and uncomfortably reminded of a world he left far behind. The film makes a strong case for Divine Providence in every aspect of every individual's life, and for living up to the challenges and tests that G-d places before you.
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9/10
Wonderful
Elli Meyer1 May 2005
"Sad to be all alone in the world" WIthout children there is no laughter.... so starts the struggle of a Baal Tshuvah (returnees to Judaisn) family in Israel in the huge Breslower chassidic community. Moshe Balanga is struggling to put food on the table, although it is never explained WHY he doesn't work, he comes home dejected on the eve of the holiday of Sucot only to be told by his wife that his faith is lacking and that he should pray harder. Ushpizen is a look at the guarded frum (religious) community from the inside. No compromises of nudity, sex, violence, foul language are needed to tell this sweet, fast paced, emotional story. I saw it with a mostly Jewish audience, but sat next to a non jew who enjoyed it as much as I did. For all ages, for all walks of life.... You will cry, and you will laugh, and you will cheer when it is over. I can't wait to see it again, I suggest you run to see it when it hits national release in September.
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9/10
Like An I.B. Singer Story Brought to Life in Today's Jerusalem
noralee26 May 2005
"Ha Ushpizin" is like a cross between Isaac Bashevis Singer and O. Henry stories brought to life in contemporary Jerusalem.

Set just before and during the fall harvest festival of Succoth, it is a modern retelling of the story from Genesis and its accompanying Midrash (extra-Biblical story) of Abraham encouraging guests (the title in Aramaic) to his house, that has become a mitzvah (obligation) for holidays. It is a thoroughly charming story of faith and love - and how maintaining both is a daily struggle requiring patience and humor and can even replace therapy.

What makes the film so involving emotionally is the superb acting. In Q & A at the Tribeca Film Festival the Orthodox writer/star and secular director explained they came up with the film, which was inspired by an actual incident that is used as a plot point, and worked diligently to get rabbinical approval by meeting certain restrictions, in order to put a human face behind the head coverings and beards of the Ultra Orthodox in Israel to help ease the tensions between their community ("the Hats" as they are called in short hand) and the majority secular citizens of Israel.

Shuli Rand was a leading film and theater actor before he gave up a secular life for a religious one, much as his character has only been religious for a few years after a somewhat shady past that in the film literally comes back to haunt him. His wife and co-star Michal Bat-Sheva Rand had been a theater director in her past and only agreed to act in this film as that was one of the rabbi's requirements for approval; a story about a couple had to be portrayed by an actual married pair. Practically swaddled burkha-like and almost as wide as she is tall, she unpredictably dominates the screen and takes it above any other more anthropological film about traditional families from any part of the world.

The modern sociological examinations are limited to having the only secular characters in the film be somewhat stereotyped; the kindliest one can say about them is that they are like citizens of Chelm or descendants of Vladimir and Estragon when they are comic relief or a menacing Laurel and Hardy.

There is some gentle clear-eyed look at the Ultra Orthodox as not serving in the Army and living only on charity that they mostly collect like Hare Krishnas in the street or from guilt-ridden Modern Orthodox businessmen that is then distributed based on the internal politics of their affiliated yeshiva.

I also have qualms about prayer being used for such personal propitiation as the couple do here, but that aspect is directed so delightfully and heartwarmingly that it's Scrooge-like to complain.

The visuals of the community of Mea Shearim, the Ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood where the film is set, with the temporary Succoth (booths for outdoor eating) set up throughout of various materials, are marvelous views that outsiders rarely get to see.

When it is released in Fall 2005 in the U.S. (with special screenings set up for the Hassidic communities that cannot attend secular theaters with mixed audiences) I doubt viewers will get to participate in the kind of lively and colorful audience I did at the Museum of Jewish Heritage which included almost every possible age and affiliation of New York Jews, particularly from Brooklyn, and some non-Jewish out-of-towners in for the Festival.

But all the Orthodox attendees wanted to know was how the secular director could not be inspired to take the pledge, as it were, after making such a film? He pointed out that his sound designer was so inspired - who stood up to much cheering from many in the crowd.
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9/10
Israeli cinema impresses again!
hahaifait9 January 2005
Ushpizin is about a "chozer b'tshuva" (recently religious) Jerusalem couple whose faith is tested repeatedly during the Succot holiday. Will their faith hold as the tests get harder and harder? Will G-d send them the miracles they need? Familiar references spring to mind, from the biblical story of Avraham and Sarah, to traditional tales of shtetl life, to the stories of S.Y. Agnon. Yet the contemporary context makes it a highly original work. The film manages to retain and build dramatic tension. It successfully portrays strong emotions including anger, frustration, love, gratitude, and faith without becoming overly sentimental.

The main couple is played by actors who are married in real life and also religious in real life (he wrote the script). Their love, clearly visible, is one of the nicest parts of the story.

The criminals who come to stay as guests during the holiday ("Ushpizin" in Hebrew) are a bit too cartooned at times, but are not all bad.

It's nice to see a Jerusalem that really exists: a place of material poverty but spiritual wealth, home to an imperfect but caring community that finds meaning in the fulfillment of mitzvahs (commandments).
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8/10
The uninvited guests
jotix10022 October 2005
Israeli cinema continues to surprise us. Not knowing anything about what this film was about, we went on the strength of the trailers we had watched. Giddi Dar, the director of "Ushpizin", is a secular man who has created a wonderful movie of hope and faith, based on the screen play by its star, Shuli Rand.

This story might be set in Israel, but it will probably resonate in audiences that go to see it with an open mind because it can be translated to other cultures. "Ushpizin" presents us an Orthodox Jewish couple that can hardly make ends meet. A religious feast is dawning on Moshe and Malli and they don't have enough to eat themselves, expecting somehow in a miracle to solve their situation. Moshe is a man that had a dubious past and has decided to become religious as a way to atone. Malli hasn't been able to conceive, a thorn in their hearts because both want a baby desperately.

When a mysterious envelope is slid under their door, Malli is shocked to find a thousand dollars in it. That seems to be the solution to their monetary problems. At the same time, we have witnessed a distraught Moshe praying for a miracle. The couple is not prepared for the unexpected riches they get, the only thing is they don't have anyone to invite to partake of the feast Malli has prepared.

Moshe's problems start just as the couple is going to begin eating, two strange men appear at their door. They are Eliyaher and Yossef, two convicts that knew Moshe in his prior life. The Bellangas believe this is another miracle because the best way to celebrate the feast is to have guests to share it with. Moshe and Malli are in for a rude awakening.

The film works because of the fine work of all the principals who play their roles convincingly. Shuli Rand is excellent. Michal Rand, makes the long suffering Malli a woman the viewer can identify with.

The film is almost a fable with a marvelous ending that will bring smiles to the viewer. Giddi Gar, the director, has to be congratulated for making this such a personal and, at the same time, universal story, come true for everyone's delight.
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10/10
Overcoming our own character flaws
leah2513 February 2005
Warning: Spoilers
While the setting might be foreign to many viewers, the movie's main message is universal. Moshe and Mali have all the external trappings of their newly found faith. Now they are put to the ultimate test when Moshe has to overcome his most prominent character flaw. The final miracle is a reward for his ability to transform himself from the inside (not just on the outside).

Rand is superb as always. I have seen him in two theatrical play and he was every bit as good as in the film. His purpose in movie-making is to bring the message of G-dliness to the viewers of all walks of life.

One of my favorites.
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8/10
reality and faith
dromasca5 November 2005
It's quite hard for me to speak about this film without referring to the context of the delicate balance of relations between religious and non-religious people in Israel. This film is made mostly by religious people, and the whole story is told from the perspective of the deep believers. Jewish religious Jerusalem looks beautiful in this film, and it's no better moment to put it on screen than the festival of Succot. Still, the world and life of the religious people in Israel is much more complicated, and the problems they face are quite different, but this is not what this story is about.

What this is indeed about is about what does influence our lives. The main characters are a born-again Jew and his wife, living at the brink of their resources a life of devotion and religious studies. Many things happen to them in the few days before and during the holiday, and these can be explained as miracles dictated by God, or by circumstances of hazard. Of course, the characters are true believers, they speak to God, and know that God rewards them or punishes them for their deeds, but is not this the result of their imagination derived from their deep belief? The director makes for most of the film no comment and lets the viewers decide by themselves. Only by the end, in the last minutes he decides to become explicit, and this is a mistake in my opinion. The kind of Hollywood style ending adopted by this film is sometimes called 'Deus ex machina' and never was the name more appropriate.

Acting is wonderful, both of the religious people looking like characters descending directly from Bashevis Singer's books, as well as the non-religious ones, although their characters are closer to stereotypes. The film was originally made for TV, I believe, with a small budget, it still is true and sincere and funny in many moments. I am looking forward to see how it will be received by the North American audiences.
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8/10
faith based and still good? i am as shocked as you.
Levi Starbird3 October 2005
This movie was great. i am not Jewish, have no Jewish friends, and really no great understanding of the faith. When i saw that i was seeing a movie the director called " deeply about faith", filmed on a totally kosher set and not allowed to be watched on the sabbath, i was preparing my self for a trip worse than Godzilla. But i was blown away. Shuli Rand is totally brilliant. This movie, as far as i am concerned, could be a vehicle for him and i would have loved it. I rarely see an actor that can let people half a world away feel the way they do about the world. I have no idea the real implacatons of the quoth, the holiday that the film takes place around, but i feel the importance just in how the lead actor holds a lemon. I was totally enthralled by this movie. The uplifting, god loving, faith inspiring aspects of film normally slide of my back because they are bad actors with bad scripts. This movie actually got the point of faith across better than i could imagine. What i mean is that Moshle ( Shuli, the lead) prays, and he revieves. Then you see why. A friend accidentally steals something he needs. Is this gods work, or dumb luck? the director and writer never answer, which makes for a much better ending. All i didn't like in the movie were a few simple things like bland direction, poor sense of time and an occasional lack of explanation.

but all and all, this is probably the best religious movie i have seen in quite some time, and i you like character acting above plot twists and effects, see this film.
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10/10
Miracles happen
leka6631 October 2004
The movie gives you a chance to think what are miracles, are they worthed and how much do you have to pay for them.

The Bellangas live in deep poverty. They are so poor that they have nothing to eat, and they cannot buy anything for the coming festival of Succot.They are also waiting more than 5 years for a child. But a miracle happens and they get 1000$ and a Succah.

However, 2 former friends, who are escaping criminals come as guests for the holiday. The Bellangas will have to pass a trial of hospitality before the movie ends.

I really enjoyed the movie which gave me plenty of things to think about. Are we really important in this world? What are our daily trials? How do we face them?
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9/10
Idealized but moving
phang20 November 2005
For someone unfamiliar with the culture, Ushpizin may be like visiting another planet full of strange people, unfamiliar rules, and absolutely opposite priorities. It quickly becomes a human fable with which all of us can connect deeply, however: the blessings and curses that come with wishes that are granted, the confusion of figuring out how the big picture will play out in our smallest choices, the warmth and pressure of belonging to a wider community of similarly confused and agitated people.

Some of the characters border on lovable stereotypes, and the picture painted is of a world in which good is absolutely guaranteed to conquer evil, but it is nonetheless believable and suspenseful. You really should see it.
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8/10
Waiting for a miracle...
Galina30 January 2006
This comedy which received Best Picture award from Israeli Critics in 2004 reveals a world that most of us don't know at all – the world of pious, ultra-Orthodox Jews in the Jerusalem courtyards that seem to be indifferent to what century or even millennium is passing by. On the eve of the Jewish harvest holiday of Succoth, Moshe and Mali, a devoutly religious but impoverished couple, pray fervently for a miracle that they desperately need – for money they need to build a Sukkah for holiday, for "ushpizin" ("holy guests") to share the holiday with, and for the most wonderful miracle of all, for a child they dream of but don't have. A series of unexpected events occur, including the appearance of two "unholy guests" – two escaped parolees from Moshe's wild past. Moshe and Mali invited the guests to share the holiday with them, and more unpredictable events would follow...

"Ushpizin" is the first collaborative effort between Israel's religious and secular communities and it features many non-professionals who gave very good performances in the movie. Shuli Rand, the writer-star of the movie and his real life wife, Michal Bat-Sheva Rand played Moshe and Mali, and their chemistry is palpable and real contributing to this thoroughly charming story of faith, love, and devotion.
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8/10
Go and see
shaid9 February 2005
Warning: Spoilers
*MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS* *MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS* *MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS* This film works on all levels. Characters we care for. A compelling story and location which is strange to most of cinema goers. It works because the script is good and keep all characters in balance and because the acting is dead on from all actors involve. You have to accept the fact that faith is an important factor in religious' people life. They can go through life solely on the belief that they will be rewarded for the good deeds they have done in their life and that they believe that someone up there is watching them and judge them according to what they do or did. That belief is the core of the film and the actors portray it well.

Recommended by all means.
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10/10
The exact opposite of Fable!
Greg Mullins8 May 2010
This is such a sweetheart of a film! Like many simple honest stories it is both Inspiring and Edifying, and very easy to misunderstand or just miss completely - if you're looking for the sensational, or if you're not one of the Faithful. In the Hebrew Tanakh it is declared by G-d Himself speaking through His prophet that all the gold and all the silver are His. He is the maker of planets and the true King of the Universe, and is not intimidated by our Indifference toward Him or our constant Refusal to give Thanks. He is angered by it, and the Bible says so. Money in itself means nothing to G-d, and only has any value at all because it means something to us. Faith and the giving of Thanks are what please G-d and make us Rich in His eyes.

Thanks for both the life He has given and the continual daily provision for that life is something Adonai has assigned to each of us as one of the most important parts in our dialog with Him. Most of us have failed in speaking our part enough, many have never done it at all.

If there is anything practical that you could take from this film it would be to follow Malli's most excellent example - and cultivate a lifestyle of Thanksgiving. Everyday. As a Christian Minister who is a prophet and teacher in full time ministry - I could not illustrate a better rendering of a life of Praise, in this short but heart warming hour and a half movie. Virtue is on display here as true believers walk out their steps of Faith with a sincere desire to please God and keep His commandments.

I found it both odd and very telling that so much of the commentary here which is secular, mistakes true Faith for fables and plot devices. This is a film about true believers by true believers - the miraculous is what we live in. God is a God who answers prayer, but only for those who let Him be God in their life. Deus ex machina has no relevancy where God is the machine. It is a rare thing, but if there is anywhere in cinema where the belief system of the Unbeliever does not apply - it would be here. Where the Scripture is thought infallible and God the only Reality, to make such comparisons would show only how much the entire point was missed, how much one didn't get it.

Faith is all about what is not seen, if you can see it then it's not Faith. Everything that happens physically is determined spiritually, and most of what we can see of the spiritual on this side is usually very subtle - because God wants us to live by Faith. He doesn't need to know that Faith works, He lives by it Himself - we need to know that our Faith works. If you go looking for the spectacular you'll miss the supernatural, most of which will occur in your Heart (not your blood pump), which is your spirit. I'm so thankful He gives us a lifetime to get good at it, but only if we walk in it. Shalom . .

http://fullgrownministry.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/true-faith/
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10/10
A film of miracles large and small.
gpeltz7 November 2005
Ushpizin is an Aramaic word meaning "Guests" It is also the name of a new movie from Israel directed by Giddi Dar, and written by Shuli Rand, who also stars in it, with his wife, Michal Bat-Sheva. This is the second movie I have seen this year dealing with miracles. The first one was from England, and was called, "Millions" It told the story of two young brothers, who come across a large amount of money. The younger of the two, fancied himself to be able to talk with the Saints. It was a terrific movie, that never hit the mainstream audiences, and disappeared shortly after it's release. If you have the ability to rent it as a DVD, I would recommend it. I fear that Ushpizin may share the same fate, and that would be a shame, because this is a wonderful film.

The e-mail from my friend alerted me of it, It was a link to, "Ushpizin.com" There I saw the trailer for the movie. Normally I would not need to mention that the friend who sent me the message was not Jewish. In this case I feel it significant, because he wanted to see the movie with me. The movie is playing in only one theater in Orange County, fortunately it is close enough to where we live.

I had my concerns going in to see it, Ushpizin is after all, a movie that takes one into a culture very alien to our California lifestyle. A Hassidic community in modern day Jerusalem serves as the backdrop, yet like all good stories, well told, it sweeps the viewer up with it's characters, and tells a tale that is ultimately universal in it's message. My friend did not need to know about the Jewish celebration of "Succos" that served as catalyst for the actions that takes place. A quick note during the titles tells one all that is needed to be known to enjoy the story.

During the seven day holiday, it is an honor to invite guests to partake of ones hospitality. Moshe played by Shuli Rand, and his barren wife Malli, played by Shuli's real wife, Michal Bat-Sheva, are a poor, but devout couple. Moshe is a good and honest man, but times are hard, and the two have to scrimp to get by. Their real troubles begin, when a friend from Moshe's past, a ne'er-do-well named Eliyahu Scorpio, played by Shaul Mizrahi, and his shady friend, Yossef played by Llan Ganani come to visit. They remain the duration of the holiday, challenging Moshe's strength, his commitment to live his new life, and his faith, that bids him to welcome the stranger and guests, even the unpleasant ones, as his Patriarch, Abraham did in his day.

I said this was a film of miracles, there are several, yet there is no parting of the red sea, nor is there any need for CGI effects, The goings on in this story are closely bound by the elements of chance, grounded in reality, yet the manner which the events of the film take place indicate an unseen hand guiding the events. The movie can be enjoyed as a fable, or a document of faith, a simple story well acted, or a profound look at the nature of goodness, My friends enjoyed it, and I came away from it uplifted, and wanting to see it again.
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10/10
a true and beautiful Jewish movie
juditht412 May 2005
i don't know if my review of this movie comes from a place of chozer beteshuva(was not religious and now i am) or from an objective place, but i found this movie to be so inspiring and beautiful. it truly reflected the way we should be talking to our G-d, as our best friend who's ways are hidden to us, and although we cant see at times why bad things happen to us, its always for a reason. if we cant see it today, we might see it tomorrow, or later, but things don't happen just for nothing.

the movie is situated in Yerusalem, and tells a very simple story, based on true events, about a poor Jewish religious guy and his wife and the miracles that happen to them and the tests they go trough, in the Jewish Holiday of Sukkot.it has a lot of small details about religious life, and shows it in a beautiful and true way.it doesn't try to be fake, and say that religion is all but good, but that its not always easy,and that life is not about 'easy'.

its about emuna(belief), about nisyonot(tests)and growing. its one of the best movies i ever saw, and i feel that after seeing this one, i have grown spiritually a bit.

a MUST SEE!!! 100 out of 10
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9/10
A Simple Tale of Faith, Beautifully Acted
yannagretchen3 August 2006
This wonderful little tale gives us a realistic portrayal of a husband and wife who live by faith, talking freely to their God, treating the coming of the Succoth holiday with reverence and struggling with "evil urge" as situations arise in day to day life. That they are converts makes them simultaneously more conscientious and prone to weakness in their efforts to follow God. As Succoth looms near, our couple find themselves unable to buy the "four species" and to celebrate in a succah. They pray for a miracle and the rest of the tale unfolds with humor and humanity.

Beautifully acted by real-life husband and wife and a colorful - if not entirely convincing - supporting cast, this film paints a picture of faith that could take place in any town, in any country, with people of any religion, which is what makes this film so appealing. Fallibility, redemption, faith and tradition are woven lovingly to create an excellent cinematic tapestry that is well worth seeing.

I would rank this film as a 10 out of 10 if not for the end of the very last scene, which I felt to be unworthy of the rest of the film.
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7/10
Delightful ... But ...
Charles Delacroix23 December 2005
This was a delightful movie in so many ways.

First, I really enjoyed the overall depiction of what was for me a very different cultural setting ... both regarding the religious context (Ultra-Orthodox Judaism) and the geocultural context (contemporary Israel, especially contemporary Jerusalem). I certainly can't comment on authenticity; but the overall flavor was convincing and the often exotic (to me) happenings, sayings, behaviors, etc were to me very appealing.

Second, the characters of Moshe and Malli were simply wonderful and wonderfully appealing. Their relationship was vivid; and the window into how an Orthodox marriage relationship "works" in the context of a strong Faith commitment by both of the couple was such a bracing experience for me.

Third, the general plot-theme ... two escaped convicts showing up and both challenging and straining Hospitality ... is very appealing to me. The characters of the convicts ... Scorpio and Yossef ... were much less appealing but certainly (uh) interesting.

Still the odd relationship between Moshe and Scorpio; and between Moshe and his wife and Scorpio and Yossef ... somehow lacked something that for me I could really find very convincing. The behavior of Scorpio and Yossef toward both their hosts, and to the general religious community on the street in which they were staying, was so attention-provoking that I had to ask myself what kind of escaped convicts want that kind of attention.

Yet all in all I really enjoyed this movie. And if you, like me, find this a pleasing but somewhat mystifying *cultural* challenge, hey, read some of the other comments on IMDb, there are some wonderful comments from Israel in particular that have shed much light for me.
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8/10
A parable
Bob Taylor21 December 2005
This is a very entertaining parable about faith and divine intervention in present-day Jerusalem. Moshe and Malli are childless and running out of time to start a family. A miracle is needed, which can be facilitated by buying the best quality lemon for the Sukkot festival. I worked out the exchange rate: that one fruit cost over US $200! So the sukkah, or hut, is set up and furnished, and it only remains to welcome the guests. And what guests they are--two escaped convicts.

Shuli Rand and his wife Michal play the couple with great brio. They're obviously having a great time. And if Eliyahu, the older of the two convicts, has a name that translates as Elijah, it's only appropriate as God sent Elijah to visit people. A good choice for the holiday season.
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10/10
Ushpizin: Reality or Fable?
Daniel Brenner17 November 2005
A must see for all who need a little inspiration, especially Jewish "Nachas," pleasure. No death scenes, no blood, little of what we associate as violence, and certainly no sex! Here is a sweet, moving and at times powerful movie that some may not find very realistic or see as true to the characters that inhabit the bounds of Yerushalayim (Jerusalem), but I assure you it is. The majority of the audience came away from the theater quite moved - we all applauded afterward! I am an educator with about 250 students a week, K-8. I have been a teacher of cinema history and have an extensive background in the fine arts. I can tell you that this movie is a quality movie with few bloopers and a show that the whole family - especially those about 10 and over - can really appreciate. My own search for Hashem is even more complex than the plot in this movie and not unlike it at all - miracles included. This is reality for many of us - it will remain a fable until you experience the Sukkah Ushpizin for yourself.

Even if you don't go to the movies normally or you would rather spend your money on another movie - your dozen dollars or less per ticket is worth every cent!
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10/10
More than a movie of faith it is a lesson in endurance and tolerance
jodogo5911 November 2005
Normally, I am not a big fan of Israeli movies. Often, they embody poor acting and poorer directing.

This movie was a definite exception.

Everything was real. It is pure acting throughout the movie (no special fx to cover up bad acting or a bad plot).

The characters are believable (because for the most part they are acting their actual lives out in front of the big screen - which in itself is problematic but not here).

The end was fairly predictable but what made it so special was the humor mixed in with sadness and anger in the scenes leading up to the climax.
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9/10
A wonderfully authentic portrayal of Hasidic Jews, but also a compelling story in its own right
kylopod22 April 2007
"Ushpizin" surpassed even my high expectations. I had heard it described by friends and family as one of the few movies ever to portray Hasidic Jews in a completely sympathetic and non-patronizing light. But it's so much more than that. What surprised me most was that it possesses some psychological depth. It's the type of film where you keep going back and reexamining character motives, gaining new insight with each viewing.

The story involves a rehabilitated criminal named Moshe (Shuli Rand) who has become a Breslover Hasid living in the Old City of Jerusalem. As the film begins, the Sukkot holiday is approaching, and he doesn't have enough money to prepare for it, having been passed over for a stipend. His wife Malli (Michal Bat-Sheva Rand) has not conceived after five years of marriage. He implores God to help them out, in what may be the most intense depiction of prayer I have ever seen in a movie. Then things start to happen. In a random act of charity (a common practice among Orthodox Jews), someone slips a thousand dollars under his door while only Malli is home. Out in the street, Moshe bumps into Ben Baruch, a sort of village idiot, who claims to have found Moshe a free Sukkah (the ceremonial hut that religious Jews eat and sleep in during the week-long holiday). What Moshe does not know is that the Sukkah was stolen from a neighbor.

Moshe and Malli think that their prayers have been answered. But the gifts are only the start of their problems. A pair of escaped convicts from Moshe's past life show up at his door, surprised at the direction he has taken in life. While not entirely comfortable, he invites them to stay with him for the duration of the holiday, according to a tradition to have ushpizin, or guests, on Sukkot. Meanwhile, he uses some of the money to purchase a very expensive etrog, or citron, the lemon-like fruit used for ritual purposes on the holiday.

The elements of this story fit well with Jewish teachings, including a tradition of stories stretching back to the Bible itself, involving people who are tested by being sent difficult guests. God, in this scheme, listens to prayers but is not a wish-maker. Every "miracle" is only the beginning of new challenges.

But "Ushpizin" is not just a simple religious fable. It has surprising layers of depth. This is partly due to director Giddi Dar, a secular Jew who interprets the story on a psychological level. Nothing overtly supernatural happens in the film. The religious motif depends on finding meaning in a series of apparent coincidences, all skillfully woven into the story in a way that never feels contrived.

The funny thing about character development is how crucial it is to most fiction, yet how rare it is in real life. People are usually set in their ways. Bad habits, such as a fiery temper, die hard. Criminals do get rehabilitated, often by religious communities, but a cynic might suggest that such individuals are simply channeling their aggression in a new direction. There's probably some truth to that assumption. "Ushpizin" recognizes these issues, amid its upbeat tone. What Moshe must ultimately learn is that he can't escape his past until he's truly confronted his own weaknesses. Morality comes not just from caring. It requires some level of struggle.

The production values of this complex yet entertaining tale are nicely high. Every shot has the mark of quality. A scene where several characters become drunk (possibly the basis for the movie's very mild PG rating) is portrayed with a subtly wobbling camera. The acting is strong all around, but the most astonishing performance comes from Michal Bat-Sheva Rand, a former theater director who never acted before this film. She took the role in accordance with her religious modesty standards, so that no one but Shuli Rand's actual wife would play his wife. With her intensely expressive face, she steals the film.

The character she plays is a tower of strength, which may come as a surprise to those people who imagine Hasidic women as weak and passive. The movie tears down negative stereotypes without ever seeming to try. It doesn't come off as the type of movie that's trying to prove anything. It is informative without being pedantic. And it is an amazing accomplishment from so many directions.
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9/10
A memorable parable of faith tested
dckennedy3 October 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Some of the best cinema in the world today comes from the Middle East, and much of that best comes from Israel. Such is Ushpizin, a finely crafted movie by Shuli Rand, staring himself and his wife Michal. Both ultra-Orthodox themselves, they live in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Me'ah She'arim (Hundred Gates). The community is rather withdrawn from secular Israeli life and even from the more modern Orthodox world, but they are willing to open themselves to outsiders. The film was made in Me'ah She'arim with ultra-Orthodox playing themselves and even speaking Hebrew (not Yiddish).

Shuli has left his old life of crime behind to become a "ba'al teshuva" (a returnee to traditional, or Orthodox, Judaism). He takes up one of the strictest branches of orthodoxy, the Breslov sect of the Hasidim ("pious ones") originally from Bratslav in the Ukraine. He and his wife live hand to mouth, hoping for a child. But Shuli's past catches up to him: two of his old criminal buddies, escaped convicts, arrive to visit during the holiday of Sukkot (the fall harvest festival six months opposite the spring festival of Passover, or Pesach). He and his wife welcome them initially as honored holy guests ("ushpizin," after the three men -- angels, actually -- who visit Abraham when he is sick, Genesis 18). A combination of good intentions, small deceptions, and understandable naivete leads to mayhem, then to a moving and remarkable ending.

Shuli and Michal's world is one of material poverty and spiritual riches - it will remind American viewers of the stories of O. Henry. But there's no sense of squalor: the cinematography has an airy glow that captures perfectly the peculiar quality of Jerusalem's golden light.

Not to be missed -- for anyone religious, skeptical, or secular, and watchable (with some effort) even by non-Jews knowing nothing about this world. A keeper of a movie!
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8/10
A Tasty Little Film About Tradition - and Other Challenges!
gradyharp2 August 2006
A very strong cast and an excellent production crew brings USHPIZIN into the realm of classics that will endure. The story may be simple but to non-orthodox Jews it is one at times confusing but always fascinating in introducing cultural traditions that are unknown to many of us.

In the case of USHPIZIN that tradition is Succoth, a seven-day holiday honoring the time when the wandering Israelites were surviving in the desert on the way to the Holy Land. Each family must make a succah (a meager temporary shelter) and celebrate with Palm frond dates, myrtle, citron, etc. We are introduced to Rabbi Moshe (Shuli Rand) and his wife Malli (Michal Bat Sheva Rand) who are so poor they cannot afford a succah much less the accoutrements to celebrate Succoth. The both pray for miracles and one comes in the form of cash allowing them a succah etc. But also along come two escaped convicts (one of whom is Moshe's ex-friend from the past) and ask for shelter - the tradition of Succoth includes never turning away guests ('ushzipin'). Naturally Moshe and Malli must take them in and the problems slowly arise, problems that challenge tradition, religion, and personal welfare.

The marriage of music, fine camera work, superb acting, beautiful costume design, and the magic of learning about ethnic traditions make this little film irresistible. Its story may be small but the metaphors are enormous! Highly recommended. In Hebrew with English subtitles. Grady Harp
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An insider's view on this film
ltble26 June 2006
I just saw this film for the first time, and although much has been written about it already, I haven't seen a review that seems to reflect my perspective, so I may have something to add. I myself grew up completely secular and became an Orthodox Jew at the age of 18, and I have had connections with Breslover Chassidim, which this film depicts. I could write about this film on two levels. One, it's quality as a film, and two, its accuracy in portraying an aspect of the Jewish Orthodox world.

Purely as a film, it's nothing to write home about. The story is kind of shallow and fairy-tale like, putting together a series of events that, while each one on its own could and does happen, are not believable in sum total. I guess that could be said about many films, but since this one is giving a somewhat intimate view of the Orthodox world and its beliefs and emotions, I would have preferred that it be made with more of a sense of realism and balance. As it is, it's doing a disservice to a community that is already seen as living in its own fairy-tale. The acting seemed pretty good, but it's hard to give a fair judgment when you're not hearing your mother tongue. I found the direction a bit choppy, not giving me enough time to savor the emotional points, but that may be a matter of taste.

Now, as for the depiction of the Orthodox, and more specifically, the Breslover Chassidic world {I must preface that I've never lived in Jerusalem (although I studied in Yeshiva there and have had meals with families who live in the area depicted in the film), nor have I been closely associated with this group, but I've had a few friends who were}:

In this area I feel the picture did a very good job. It shows the struggles of a baal-teshuvah (newly religious) couple, and how they bring their faith in God to the practical arena of life. The honest and straightforward relationship between the two protagonists is realistic and believable, although I don't think you would find the same candor and open emotion in the relationship of a similarly Chassidic couple who were religious all their lives (but I can't be sure, as in those circles people would never display their relationship in front of others).

The "straight-talking" form of prayer that we see the main character do is called "hisbodedus" and is strongly encouraged in the Breslover literature. After seeing it in action, I'm beginning to see its merits. It really makes you feel that there's a reality to his belief in God, and it's not just lip-service.

There were aspects of the film's depiction of religious ritual that bothered me, but I'm not going to nit-pick here.

There were several lost opportunities here, once they took the trouble to make a "kosher" film using real Orthodox actors in a real environment. The only view we had of the Yeshivah didn't show a serious Talmudic study session, but rather a time when they were studying "chassidus," the moral and ethical self-improvement texts. As such, I don't think it would impress an outsider as something worthy of being jobless for. They are left thinking that these people spend their whole day wagging their thumbs about not getting angry, or trusting in God.

In fact, whatever way you show it, I don't think you can make this way of life understandable to a secular eye. To show a married man who chooses not to work, but then bemoans his penniless fate and cries out to God to help him and save him seems, to an outsider of this society, simplistic at best, and ridiculous and irresponsible at worst. It's a shame that the purity and depth of faith shown in this film was set against such a backdrop.

I also didn't like that the only secular people in the film were the characters of escaped convicts, with bad manners and little culture, setting up a conflict between the small-minded members of the neighborhood and these lowlifes. It misses what could have been an opportunity to show the warmth, caring, and open friendliness that these communities display when not threatened. I came into the home of one of these "xenophobic" Jerusalemite families for a Shabbos (Sabbath) meal when I knew very little about religion, and I have yet to meet (after 16 years) more genuinely welcoming and purely kind people. In fact, it was experiences like those that helped me see the "real" Judaism; the proof's in the pudding, as they say.

All criticisms aside, I enjoyed the movie. I can't speak for a secular person, for whom the whole context may be bewildering, but if you can let yourself be taken in, it is heartwarming and sweet, and provides a rare glimpse of what a Jewish Orthodox (at least a Breslov Chassidic) relationship with God is all about.
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8/10
Interesting and unique film
leviot6 April 2006
Let me preface this comment by saying that I am an Orthodox Jew, albeit more of the modern variety than those portrayed in the film. I will give some of my thoughts regarding the film, as well as clarify some things that may seem baffling to those who are unfamiliar with the Orthodox Jewish way of life.

"Ushpizin" is a unique film because, first and foremost, it was produced jointly by religious and secular Jews in Israel. Anyone who knows anything about the relations between the modern and ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel will understand that that's quite an accomplishment. The interesting thing is that the lead actor's role is somewhat auto-biographical. Shulli Rand grew up a secular Jew, and was quite a famous actor in Israel before he became religious. He joined up with his old (secular) friends to act just for this movie. The woman who plays his wife is his wife in real life.

The story is about a childless couple, who are struggling financially, trying to prepare for the holiday of Succoth ("Booths"). The storyline and plot is not unlike many Jewish (and Hasidic) fables and folk-tales. The story is supposed to be a kind of folksy tale, hence the almost cartoonish acting of the characters. Think of it as a Shtetl story transplanted to modern-day Isreal.

The Orthodox live their entire lives "in service of the L-rd". They Believe that G-d runs the world and everything happens for a purpose. When there are difficulties, it's because G-d is "testing" them. As in other religious societies, much importance is placed on the family, and not having children is a great tragedy. They believe that doing certain Mitzvahs (commandments or good deeds) are a "Segula" - a blessing - to be able to conceive.

The holiday of Succoth occurs in autumn, and it symbolizes the Jews' miraculous travels through the wilderness from Egypt to the Promised Land. Booths called "Sukkas" are built to symbolize how G-d shielded the Jews from all the dangers of the desert. Four Kinds of plants (the Arba Minim) are used for prayer, symbolizing the unity of all different types of Jews. The most important of these plants is the Etrog - the citron - a lemon-like fruit. Great efforts are made to obtain the nicest and cleanest Etrog, even at a very high price.

Overall, It's interesting and surprisingly funny at times. The acting is good all around. The cinematography is quite good, and it includes some great Israeli songs. I hope this comment was useful to you.
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