Ushpizin is a good example of how foreign and independent films can expose viewers to types of people and cultures and lifestyles very new to most of them. In this case, it’s the Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem.
Then again, even if a film like this is valuable and educational for people for whom what it depicts is all new, you can also make the case that only viewers with considerable background knowledge will fully understand and appreciate a movie like this.
There are some things the movie explains and some things you can kind of infer, but for me there were still plenty of gaps as far as the Orthodox beliefs and practices, plenty of things I did not understand or I’m sure did not even notice as I watched.
The movie is the story of an Orthodox Jewish couple, struggling financially and struggling with their lack of success thus far to conceive a child (well, a son specifically). During Sukkot (a holiday week where observant Jews move to a temporary dwelling, receive guests, and perform various rituals), they are visited by a pair of escaped convicts, who threaten to entangle the husband in his former life.
By the way, screenwriter Shuli Rand plays the male lead, and his real life wife Michal Bat-Sheva Rand plays the female lead. One of his conditions for making the movie was that his wife be cast in that role.
The Orthodox lifestyle as depicted in the movie is an intriguing mix of trying to fulfill empty traditions and rituals (consistently silly and annoying), and trying to live up to demanding moral principles (consistently admirable). The people in the movie go through their days obsessing over buying the right plant or bauble for a certain ritual, and reciting the right magic phrases to bring about good fortune and such on the one hand, and genuinely trying to live up to high standards of sincerity, compassion, hospitality, etc. on the other.
The husband, for instance, knows that having the escaped convicts around is fraught with risks of various kinds, but he and his wife believe that they must strive to be ideally good hosts regardless, and that indeed the more difficult it is to do so, the more obligatory it is, as that indicates all the more that this is a test of their character and faith.
It’s a movie that probably sounded more interesting to me to read about than it actually turned out to be. It’s mostly light fare. The escaped convicts never go much beyond low level mischief-making, the problems of the couple are solved enough for a pretty conventional happy ending, and really there’s just not a lot of powerful, thought-provoking, suspenseful or surprising stuff going on.
Because of the unfamiliarity of much of the lifestyle, it was a bit more of a struggle for me to follow than a conventional movie, and I just don’t know that there is enough of a payoff to justify the extra effort.
It’s OK, and I did find the main couple to be likable characters, but I was never more than mildly to moderately interested.