USHPIZIN — *** 1/2 — Shuli Rand, Michal Bat Sheva Rand, Shaul Mizrahi; in Hebrew and Yiddish, with English subtitles; rated PG (violence, vulgarity).
"Ushpizin" manages to be as informative as it is moving — which is quite a feat for any movie, much less a low-to-no-budget Israeli-made drama.
The film provides a valuable glimpse into the religious practices of ultra-Orthodox Jews living in Jerusalem. (This is the first production allowed inside one of the city's closed communities.) But it's also a cleverly plotted film, which, refreshingly, also features a few welcome comic elements.
"Ushpizin" examines the period of Sukkot, a holiday of sorts when devout Jews enter temporary dwellings called succahs for a week, to remind themselves of their humble beginnings. And if they are blessed, they may have guests (the term "ushpizin" is Aramaic for "holy guest").
One of the devout here is Moshe Bellanga (Shuli Rand, who also wrote the script), who is hoping to be able to find or build a succah. He and his wife Malli (Michal Bat Sheva Rand) have no money and no food. They're also desperately hoping to have a child, so they're praying for a miracle. Those prayers appear to be answered when an envelope filled with cash arrives on their door. And then one of Moshe's friends (Avraham Abutboul) finds a succah that has apparently been abandoned.
Then, even more improbably, they find themselves entertaining a pair of guests — Eliyahu (Shaul Mizrahi) and Yosef (Ilan Ganani) — who introduce themselves to Malli as being old friends of Moshe's. Instead, however, they're escaped convicts who abuse the Bellanga's hospitality, which puts a strain on the couple's already tenuous marriage.
The goofy humor helps — some of it fairly broad (certain characterizations, in particular) and some of it fairly subtle (such as the constant allusions to and metaphors about uses of lemons, which become amusing as you understand them).
And director Gidi Dar (1992's "Eddie King") definitely made the right choice by casting a real-life couple as his leads. You can't fake the kind of genuine affection the Rands demonstrate for each other. As Mali, Bat Sheva Rand exudes so much warmth that it's impossible not to love her. And Rand makes Moshe's internal struggle with his violent past very believable.
"Ushpizin" is rated PG for some brief violent content (more the threat of violence), and use of a few crude slang terms. Running time: 90 minutes.