Ushpizin mines a vein of Jewish humor not often seen in the movies. The mode is religious parable, the protagonists are Hasidim, and there’s even a seasonal hook. This warmhearted Israeli feature, shown earlier this year at Tribeca, opens in time for Sukkot—a harvest festival during which observant Jews move from their home into the rustic temporary shelter of a sukkah—and that’s what it’s about. The title, which could be translated as “holy guests,” alludes to the prayer in which Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David are invited into one’s frond-festooned hut.
The actor Shuli Rand, who wrote Ushpizin‘s screenplay as well as starred in it, is himself a nouveau Hasid, making his return to the screen after an eight-year absence and with the blessing of his rabbi. Rand and his wife, Michal Bat-Sheva Rand, play Moshe and Malli, a penniless scholar and his ostensibly barren wife—she’s never acted before, but their affectionately bickering rapport is infectious. Too poor to afford a sukkah, the couple pray for a miracle and when they believe that they’ve been granted one, having been given someone else’s sukkah, they respond with comic enthusiasm—welcoming a pair of unexpected guests, who slink in with their hands covering their heads.
Unbeknownst to Malli, her pious Moshe has what might be termed a history of violence. These ushpizin are not biblical patriarchs but two scurvy criminals on the lam, one of whom was Moshe’s buddy in his earlier incarnation. The guests are pleased to accept the couple’s hospitality and more; partying in the sukkah, they torment the pious neighborhood by blasting their boombox (as if the secular could ever so bully the religious in Jerusalem). Meanwhile, Moshe and Malli imagine that God has given them a test. That one of the “holy guests” is called Eliyahu is a clue; his biblical namesake has a long career in Jewish legend making house calls in disguise.
As directed by Gidi Dar, Ushpizin has a disarming folk quality. Moshe pleads, Tevye-like, with God to help him keep his temper when the ushpizin trash his home and use the Sukkot esrog (a fertility charm for which Moshe has paid a small fortune) to make a salad. Although this earthy I-Thou relationship is never cloyingly cozy, it’s abundantly clear that the movie’s ending proves the existence of Moshe’s deity—at least to Moshe.