As the hysterical turmoil in Moshe Bellanga's life reaches a fever pitch, he offers up a prayer that lays open the complexities of this film with wonderful simplicity: "Thank you, Lord," he intones, "for helping to keep separate the sacred and the secular." By this point in Ushpizin, a picture made by members of an Ultra Orthodox community in collaboration with secular filmmakers, Moshe's prayer is loaded with a wry irony. This comes from the film's ability to depict the holy and the profane with great humanity and humor, even as it sets them in opposition.
The film tells the tale of Moshe and Malli, an Orthodox husband and wife who are strapped for cash before the approaching holiday of Succoth. Moshe doesn't have the money to get together the temporary dwelling that must be built for the holiday to commemorate the time of Exodus. The arrival of sudden funds is viewed by the couple as a miracle, while the arrival of unexpected guests -- two escaped convicts and friends of Moshe from his younger, wilder days -- is interpreted by the couple as a test, timed to coincide with the holiday, which traditionally stresses hospitality to guests (the Hebrew word for "guests" providing the film's title).
The film captures both the madness and the joy of living one's life by what many would consider to be fanatical religious standards. As Moshe is forced to confront his criminal past, the difficulties of conceiving a child with his wife, and the validity of his new Orthodox lifestyle, we see all the characters -- criminals and housewives, bankers and rabbis -- dealing with the frailty of belief in a modern world. The only complaint I have about this film is the ending, which felt a bit too short and sweet, but I would say that was only in comparison to the body of the film, which was as interesting, funny, and human as anything I've seen this year.
Ushpizin opens Friday, December 16th, at Ridgeway Four.