Saturday, January 27, 2007


USHPIZIN (2004, Israel, Giddi Dar, Shuli Rand screenplay)
I didn't prepare for guests.
What can I do? Do we run the world? God sent guests to our succah. Should we send them away? They'll wash hands and bless the food. They'll sit in a succah, maybe for the first time ever! Does it get any better than that?
You're all glowing.
Like a torch. I feel that we are about to receive abundance from Heaven.

It's not the miracle that matters. It's the woman's face: grinning, rapt, her eyes shining, dancing and singing in her plain and cramped apartment, she radiates joy. She's in love. With God.

Her husband comes in from the street and stops the tape player. She turns to him. "Moshe, you saint, God loves you so much!" Their desperate prayers have been answered, but it's not the thousand dollars slipped under their door in an anonymous envelope that's the blessing – it's the sure and certain knowledge that they are loved by God.

When actors find their way into a character, their starting point and ending point is the character's deepest need: "What am I fighting for?" What's the precise shape of the hole at the centre of this character? We call it the super-objective: the need, the hunger, the ache, the grail, the image of the way things have to be, that draws the character forward, causes them to initiate the events of the story, dictates the ways they will respond. A character cannot rest until they have it: once they have it, or know they can never have it, or realize that what they thought they were seeking wasn't really what they wanted, the play is over.

Apply the question to your own life, and the "right answer" for every Christian will be "God" – all our yearnings are ultimately satisfied only in God. The hole at our centre – at the centre of every human being – is God-shaped, and nothing else will fill it. Why, then, can I think of no other film whose characters' every action is so clearly motivated by that one overarching desire: to experience, to know the love of God.

Radically Orthodox members of Jerusalem's Breslau hassidic community, Moshe and Malli Belanga are poor as synagogue mice. He's called "rabbi," but it's obviously not a paid position – think "Bible school student" on a very meager scholarship. They want for many things they cannot afford: some food in their bare refrigerator; a succah, one of the temporary plywood dwellings their neighbours are all building in the courtyard of the apartment complex, for the seven-day celebration of Succoth, the Feast of Tabernacles; ushpizin, holy guests to stay with them during the feast; the Four Species, to make blessings – date-palm branches, myrtle, willow, and especially citron, for the special blessing of children, which they yearn for above all. Above all except God himself, and His love.

We have seen religious films whose climax is a miracle: the characters' deepest desires are finally fulfilled when God provides. Even those of us who know that miracles do happen can be let down but such literal deus ex machina – sure God intervenes, sometimes, but is that any way to tie up a plot? USHPIZIN takes the opposite strategy: the miracles happen right near the beginning. They initiate the action. In answer to prayer (some of the most gloriously fervent, heart-felt, unabashedly human prayer you'll ever see on screen) God starts the ball rolling. It's the consequences of His action, the choices and crises that flow out of His blessings, that this movie is most interested in. Me too.

Reviewers frequently refer to the film, which as far as I can tell is universally praised, as a "fable" or "fairy tale." I know what they mean, and I don't. It does have the simplicity and directness of an ancient story, its two righteous (or aspiring-to-be-righteous) protagonists fitting well with a long line of hasidic tales and instructive parables. But I think it's also more than that.

For one thing, there's real meat on the bones of these characters, they're recognizable, flawed humans, not just symbols in a moral illustration. I know these people. Sometimes, I am these people.

The other thing. If your real world is one where miracles don't happen, where prayers aren't answered, perhaps one where people don't really even pray or experience the love of God in any way as tangible as money in an envelope or the provision of a house (however temporary), then this story can be seen as nothing but a magical tale, wishful thinking, as quaint and artificial as fantasies about fairies, enchantments and talking animals. No wonder they feel uncomfortable seeing USHPIZIN as anything bigger than a fable.

But if your real world is a world of prayers answered and unanswered, of both poverty and provision, of inexplicable miracles alongside unresolvable trials, USHPIZIN is anything but a fable: in fact, it may feel like life itself, truer than scores of films where God is only absent, or silent, or cruel.

God doesn't always answer prayers with a miracles, but sometimes He does: USHPIZIN is the story of one of those times. But it's not the miracle that matters: it's what comes after.

Available at Videomatica
Nice write-ups at Greencine (David D'Arcy) and Movies Matter (Ken Morefield)

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