Ushpizin is a quietly moving drama set in an almost-unseen world. It takes place in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem during the fall holiday of Sukkot, which falls this year on Sept 22-29. During Sukkot, families build tabernacles called sukkahs out of organic materials and decorate them with harvest fruits and vegetables to celebrate and give thanks for the bounty of the season. Observant Jews eat their meals and sometimes even sleep in these huts, which have their roofs open so that the people inside can see the stars.
“Ushpizin” was made by the formerly secular actor Shuli Rand, who is now a part of the community where it was made, and which has never been shown on film before. Because of the restrictions on male-female contact in the Orthodox community, Rand’s wife had to play his character’s wife. Even though she had not acted professionally before, her performance is one of the movie’s highlights. She immediately engages our interest and her sweet sincerity makes her utterly captivating.
Rand plays Moshe Bellanga, a Hasidic Jew who is married to Malli (Michal Bat-Sheva Rand). They are devoted to each other and to their religious practice, but very poor. They are not even able to pay their landlord. And then a miracle happens. Through an American charity, they receive a special grant of $1000. Moshe’s religious dedication is so passionate that instead of spending the money on their daily necessities, he wants to use it to realize his dream. A part of the celebration of Sukkot is the waving of the lulav (a palm frond) and the etrog (a lemon-like citrus fruit), and the freshest and most beautiful specimens are sought after. Moshe dreams of a truly magnificent etrog, and this money makes that possible.
Meanwhile, some friends from Moshe’s past life arrive. He warmly welcomes them and invites them to stay in his sukkah, not realizing, or not caring, that they are thieves running from the law. The title of the film is an Aramaic term for “guests.”
The glimpses of life in this community are as interesting as the story, which unfolds in a direction that differs from the usual movie conventions of order being confronted by chaos. It is a tender, touching, and inspiring story of love, faith, and genuine goodness.