By Alan Scherstuhl
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How do you sell a film about Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem to their peers in America who don't even watch TV? Gidi Dar's Ushpizin, a hit in Israel (opening here October 19), is an urban parable about a childless, penniless couple tested by God, with ultra-Orthodox Jews in all but two roles. Its star and writer, Shuli Rand, was a screen sex symbol before fleeing into yeshivas a decade ago.
Was it word of mouth, as Dar says, or word of G-d? Can miracles repeat themselves? While sages debate that question, distributor Picturehouse is targeting Brooklyn's orthodox heartland before hitting the red states. The campaign is led by Bob Berney, Picturehouse's Catholic president, who turned Mel Gibson's Aramaic-language crucifixion saga into a cash machine two years ago. "When we were shooting," says Dar, "I told the crew, 'The guy who made The Passion should do this film.' "
For The Passion of the Christ, which weathered charges of anti-Semitism, Berney believes clergy approval broadened the audience, as he thinks it will for Ushpizin. He's screening it at a Brooklyn high school so rabbis can endorse it. Borough Park has 90,000 Orthodox Jewsand no movie theaters. A nod from a clergyman, Berney says, and the faithful could fill multiplexes. "It's important to have their endorsement, but then there's the broader Jewish community, and the art film audience, and I think there will even be interest among Christian evangelicals," says Berney.
The forbidden-fruit factor will lure in a few HasidimTrembling Before G-d, about gay and lesbian Orthodox, brought Hasidic kids disguised in baseball hats to Film Forumbut the promise of a humane, wholesome film about Hasidim attracts more, says Yisroel Lifshutz, a baal tschuva ("returnee") like Rand. Word came from Israel that "it's a kosher film, without all the scenes of sex and violence, and language problems," says Menachem Lubinsky, a marketing consultant who's gone door-to-door to fill the Brooklyn screening, with separate sections for men and women.
Word of mouth was a mixed blessing in Israel, where eager religious Jews pirated Ushpizin off the net. The religious press refused to run Ushpizin's ads, yet Dar got the word out that pirating was wrong: "I said it wasn't between them and me, but between them and God." Payments from guilty pirates began trickling in and never stopped. Just in case, Picturehouse has a warning on its American poster, similar to that on ultra-Orthodox software: "Leading Torah authorities have ruled that unauthorized use of the Ushpizin film is contrary to Halacha Jewish law." Its seven-point type "is not as small as insurance policy type. We want them to think about it," says Lubinsky. "We didn't go so far as to put 'Thou Shalt Not Steal.' Gidi wanted that. But it's that kind of understanding," says Berney.
With the riot act read, Berney and Dar are still releasing Ushpizin with a hand tied behind their back. Shuli and Mikhal Rand, who play the childless couple, won't be here to promote the film for Sukkoth, the feast that figures in Ushpizin. They're expecting a child, their seventh.
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