Years ago, when we were typical graduate students, my wife and I squeaked by economically on a graduate assistantship and part-time jobs. Ours was never a desperate situation, but we certainly lived a Spartan existence. We bought our clothes at secondhand stores and seldom splurged on a restaurant meal. Counting the bathroom, we lived in a three-room apartment. We had a separate bedroom. But the kitchen appliances, sitting area and dining table were all crowded into the "living room." Then one summer, fresh from a bitter divorce, an old college friend came to visit. Without notice, he brought with him a brother we had never met and very shortly discovered we didn't like. The two men took up residence on the floor of our living room for six weeks. The brother didn't like the food we prepared and other ways we organized our simple life. My friend didn't make him shut his nagging mouth, and the stress this put on our tiny household almost destroyed our marriage. I tell this story as a way of illustrating how a Southern Baptist might almost shockingly identify with director Giddi Dar's Ushpizin, a gentle domestic drama set in the isolated ultra-Orthodox Jewish Mea Shearim community in Jerusalem.
Written by Shuli Rand, who stars as the devout but impoverished Moshe Belanga, Ushpizin (which means "holy guests" in Aramaic) is the story of a Hassidic couple who are relying on their faith in the power of the next world to endure the hardships they encounter in this one. Save in his vigorous praying, Moshe is almost completely passive, and this allows people to take advantage of him, not to pay him as they should. As a result, Moshe and his cherished but feisty wife Mali (Shuli's real-life wife, Michal Bat-Sheva Rand) are barely making ends meet. Behind on their rent, they've been dodging their landlord for days, and their tiny refrigerator is almost bare. The actors are perhaps a bit stout to make us accept their utter poverty completely, but the basic pretext of this film is to be taken metaphorically rather than literally. The Belangas are further troubled by their failure to conceive a child after five years of devoted marriage.
Moshe and Mali's travails come to crisis on the eve of Sukkot, the religious festival that celebrates the harvest Jews enjoyed as they fled Egypt in the great Exodus. During Sukkot, believers are supposed to erect a succah, or temporary dwelling, to commemorate the time of wandering and are supposed to extend hospitality to any who need it. It at first appears that Moshe and Mali's poverty will prohibit them from practicing any of these rituals, but after a round of sustained, earnest, candid prayer, they are rewarded with miracles. They receive an envelope full of money that allows them to buy food, and a friend loans them a succah. When Moshe's old friend, Eliyahu (Shaul Mizrahi), shows up with pal Yossef (Ilan Ganani) and asks for hospitality, the Belangas think that all their prayers have been answered in the opportunity to celebrate Sukkot fully.
But the appearance of Eliyahu and Yossef is something less than an overt blessing. They are escaped convicts, selfish, crude, ungrateful and ceaselessly menacing. They devour the Belangas' dwindling supply of food, borrow and waste money and shortly manage to enrage all the Belangas' neighbors. Moreover, they reveal Moshe's sordid past as a ruffian. Much of the visitors' bad behavior, it turns out, is provoked in response to their disbelief that someone as cynical and prone to violence as Moshe once was can conceivably be the soft-spoken man they encounter today. Eliyahu is convinced Moshe is conducting some kind of elaborate scam that he's determined to uncover. He becomes so aggressive he scares Mali, and Moshe commits the sin of lying to get rid of the visitors.
Here is where Ushpizin transforms itself from narrative to allegory. In loving his wife enough to break the commandment of hospitality to protect her, Moshe averts his face from God, who must come first. In turn, in surrendering to anger, Mali also breaks a commandment, and though we have concluded without doubt that the Belangas' love for each other is their greatest earthly treasure, in losing sight of their first allegiance they risk losing each other. But where there is sin, there can be repentance. And where there is repentance, divine forgiveness follows.
The concluding events of Ushpizin are perhaps too tidy for the world in which we live. Characters reverse themselves in ways the picture doesn't bother to explore. But there's a profound sweetness to this movie, a confidence in transcendent grace that will speak to the believer from whatever religious background. Moreover, anyone who has ever loved someone and stumbled stupidly to the brink of separation will fight back tears of gratitude for this affirmation of second chances.