The first few frames of “Ushpizin,” the Israeli Academy Award-winning film released today in theaters nationwide, bear a peculiar marking you will not seen on any other film this year: In the top right-hand corner of the screen, three Hebrew letters gleam discreetly — bet, samech, dalet. The letters form an acronym for Aramaic words besiata dishmaya, meaning“with the support of God” — a phrase traditionally written on documents to signify the author’s reliance on the Divine in the moment of creation.
The essence of the film — a joint venture between ultra-Orthodox actor Shuli Rand and Giddi Dar, a secular director and Rand’s longtime collaborator — is exposed in the jarring incongruence between the image on the screen and the appearance of the archaic, traditional “besiata dishmaya.” How can the profane and the holy be combined successfully? How does one contain the other?
Moshe Belanga (Rand) and his wife, Malli (Michal Bat-Sheva Rand), a passionately faithful newly Orthodox couple, are struggling to get together enough money to celebrate the seven-day holiday Sukkot. They scrape together meals from scraggly cabbage, mourn their bad luck and hope for a miracle. When a miracle does come — in the form of a random donation of $1,000 and the sudden acquisition of an abandoned sukkah, the two rejoice because now they can celebrate the holiday in splendor. Their luck continues when guests appear auspiciously, thereby allowing them to fulfill the religious obligation to host.
The guests turn out to be Moshe’s old friends from his shady past who have escaped from prison and are seeking to hide out in the Orthodox community, where they never would be found. They are crass, rude and disdainful of Moshe and his wife, and ultimately they disrupt the community and throw life into tumult. Moshe and Mali, who are childless and desperately praying for a pregnancy, regard all this as a test — a modern invocation of the biblical tale of Sarah and Abraham who, before the birth of Isaac, received two guests who turned out to be angels announcing Sarah’s pregnancy.
Although the film offers a peek into the shuttered world of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox — a frank and un-coded presentation of the parlance of miracles, tests and prayer — it does not offer the complex and tantalizing possibility of voyeurism. Instead it presents the characters in a tender, respectful (and at moments romanticized) light — with the joy and color of an S.Y. Agnon story rather than the cynicism with which ultra-Orthodox Jews are often presented.
We follow Moshe through the streets of his neighborhood: We shadow him as he enters a shop to buy an etrog, the citrus fruit used for the holiday of Sukkot, and we come to understand its preciousness, its jewel-likeness; we see streams of men dancing through the streets in anticipation of the holiday; we see the courtyard filled with sukkot, lighted up like light-boxes, the sounds of singing mingled with the cozy clanking of forks. Far from an act of voyeurism, the watching of this film becomes an aesthetic act, a participation in the beauty of ritual.
The portrayal of marriage is similarly elevated and elevating. The couple’s intimacy is touched by the presence of God. The two actors are real-life husband and wife, and they were cast as the couple so as not to violate the restrictions on activities between unmarried men and women. Their relationship on film is loving, deep and full of warmth: She chastises him with the flick of an eyebrow; he soothes her with the creasing of his smiling eyes. And both actors radiate heat, though it is a kind of fervent, zealous, almost divine heat. Their closeness is enacted with an awareness of God’s constant proximity, and the most romantic (and even sexualized) moments between them come during scenes when they engage in prayer. In one particular sequence, Moshe — at Mali’s command — has gone off to a park to pray for a miracle to help them celebrate the holiday. Mali stays in the couple’s cramped apartment, swaying and moaning over a prayer book. The two are crosscut in their separate spaces of devotion: He screams and flails and leaps and roars; her eyes are closed, and she rocks rhythmically. When they reunite in the apartment and find the money that saves them, they hop about in a breathless dance (although they never touch). There is something absurd and almost unbearable about watching the intimacy of a person at prayer, and yet these scenes are the film’s most visceral and moving. Rand’s portrayal of Moshe at prayer — his face contorted with crying out to God — is stirring.
The film acknowledges and relieves this discomfort with its artful use of humor. Even as the film respects the beauty of faith, it offers humor as a corollary. The physicality of the characters in the film borders on slapstick — their bodies are expressive tools for both holiness and mishap — and their stock quality (Moshe as the hapless, soulful, down-on-his-luck hero; Mali as the quick-tongued-yet-loving wife) makes them accessible as it fills them with the enduring depth of myth or folktale. The parallel drawn between religious ecstasy and sexual ecstasy seems deliberately comic, to probe the territory (as comedy often does) between the realms of the existential and the earthly, the heavy and the light. As the film seems to claim, the impulses that create humor and faith emanate from the same origin — a human being’s understanding of his or her own smallness, an apprehension of the absurdity and disorder of the universe.
One of the final shots perfectly encapsulates the film’s modus operandi: On a narrow Jerusalem street, a man wearing a black T-shirt and hip glasses gets ready to cross. On the other side of the street, an ultra-Orthodox man talks on his cell phone as he gets into his car. Skyscrapers loom behind the quaint, Jerusalem-stone walkways. In “Ushpizin,” as in the city of Jerusalem, the profane and the holy co-exist in a complementary, absurdist landscape.
Sasha Weiss is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.