Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 01/23/06 22:02:24

"Warm fuzzy movies are the same, no matter what the religion."
3 stars (Just Average)

I feel like a bit of a heel for not liking "Ushpizin" more than I do. I talk a good game about how being edgy is over-rated, especially in comparison to being heartfelt; I say the one of the things I love about foreign films is being exposed to different cultures. When something big-hearted and unfamiliar like "Ushpizin" comes along, I feel like I should appreciate it more. Instead, I find myself looking at my watch, trying to suppress a yawn because I don't want to offend the older folks who don't need the subtitles, and afterward noting that it had really good intentions.

The movie opens with scrolling text to inform Gentiles (and less-religious Jews) of the rituals surrounding the Succot holiday, which involve (among other things) living in a wooden shelter, acquiring a citron fruit, and showing hospitality to any guests (the ushpizin of the title) who may appear at one's doorway. For Moshe Bellanga (Shuli Rand), times are tight, and he's afraid he won't be able to afford these things, even though he and his wife Malli (Michal Bat-Sheva Rand) are praying for a child. However, things work out, or at least they seem to - the guests they are blessed with (Shaul Mizrahi and Ilan Ganani), are in fact convicts who didn't return to prison at the end of their furlough.

Mr. Rand also wrote the screenplay, co-starring along with his real-life wife; both are religious in real life, with Rand having left film several years before returning to make this one. He doesn't show any signs of rust, though, solidly anchoring the cast as a changed man who is, perhaps, finding the religious lifestyle harder than he initially imagined. He's certainly the standout among the cast; while the rest are capable enough, their performances don't seem to have the depth of character that Rand's does.

The biggest issue is one that is often seen with religiously-inspired films no matter what the faith: Espousing ideals is as big a priority as telling a story or examining a character, and that often leads to some moments that are as dull as they are painfully sincere. For instance, Moshe winds up with a shelter because of a misunderstanding. The moment when the shelter's rightful owner sees it missing is funny, and a decent enough set-up for later complications. However, because this is a spiritual movie, Moshe must find out, and feel terribly guilty, and beg forgiveness, and offer restitution, and be told that it was an honest misunderstanding and no harm was done, and say that the shelter's rightful owner is a kind man, whose generosity will be rewarded... It goes on like this, stopping the film dead in the middle to tie up a situation that is not dramatically important, but which must be thoroughly addressed if the hero's conscience is to be absolutely squeaky-clean by the end of the movie.

Of course, that Moshe does this might be seen as very much necessary to the film's religious audience; those details that seem minor could have importance that we outsiders simply cannot comprehend. This film is built on such small details: The plot hangs on the perfect symmetry of a citron fruit, or the perceived disrespect of the visitors cooking and playing music outside in a religious neighborhood. Unless these are one's own traditions, they may seem like fairly trivial concerns to hang the film's story on, especially since the characters are not very active. One one level, it is sort of gratifying to see faith rewarded, but on another, don't complain about having no money to buy a citron if you're spending all day pondering the Torah rather than the help wanted ads. It's also a lucky break that these fugitives are apparently petty criminals or something else minor (or not; that might have added some actual tension to the film).

It's not all bad, or even mostly so. The film does have a big heart, and a strong lead performance to convey it. It never looks down at either its religious or non-religious audience, and its moments of excessive earnestness are notable as the exception, rather than the norm. Though clearly designed for a niche audience - Israelis with strong religious convictions - it does manage to cross over and appeal to others.

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