4 Stars - Uplifting
It is difficult putting faith on film. When it’s too obvious, its simplistic message doesn’t communicate to a world in pain. But when it’s too hidden, faith is lost in a conundrum of conflicting experiences. Finding the middle path of believable faith and realistic life requires exceptional skill and personal understanding. In “Ushpizin”, this has been accomplished.
Filmed in Israel with subtitles, “Ushpizin” is a modern parable created by the collaboration of an Orthodox Jew, Shuli Rand, who wrote the tale, and a secular Jew, Gidi Dar, who directed it. Though the setting is an Hasidic community in modern Jerusalem, it could be set in any orthodox neighborhood throughout the world with many elements speaking to religious life in other traditions as well.
The central characters are a recently converted man appropriately named Moshe Bellanga (played by writer Shuli Rand) and his wife Malli (played by his real wife Michal Bat-Shiva Rand). Living in poverty in part because of their religious devotion, a crisis occurs when the upcoming holy day of Succoth is unable to be celebrated without a miracle of God’s provision. Succoth is the festival in which families live in temporary dwellings remembering their ancestors’ days in the wilderness. It is held five days after Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Building the tale on multiple biblical narratives, Moshe and Malli are childless. Like the father of the Jewish nation, Abram, and his wife Sarah, Moshe and Malli experience their barrenness as a failing and look to God for His blessing. It is this deep need and sense that they must pass some test to show their worthiness for such blessing that is the central theme of the story.
Any person of faith will recognize both the struggle to believe and the sorrow and joy inherent in the journey. When their poverty is miraculously solved by an overwhelming gift that is simultaneously delivered while Moshe and Malli are in prayer, their joy and generosity is quick and expressive. When their need for a temporary Succoth or booth is also miraculously provided, they enter the holy day with great expectations.
But it is at this moment that the film deepens and the spiritual messages rise above the level of simple superstition to a true faith encounter. Moshe and Malli are given the opportunity to provide hospitality to two men, one of whom comes from Moshe’s former life when he was a violent and angry man. Though we don’t at first realize their purpose is far deeper than to receive hospitality, it is the presence of these two visitors or ushpizin that puts Moshe’s conversion to the test: Has he truly become a righteous man or is it all an act?
The power of God to interact with a human being and bring about lasting spiritual change is the promise of the Bible. From Abraham to Moses to David to Jeremiah to Matthew to John to Paul, the story has been told in life after life that “God Loves” and “God Saves” his people. The temporary booths of Succoth are a reminder to the Orthodox Jews and the temporary elements of the Eucharist are a reminder to Christians that we are on a spiritual journey full of opportunities to test our transformation and see God’s hand at work.
- The secluded community of Moshe and Malli has both a quietness and an intensity to it. Do you find such a lifestyle appealing? Why or why not? Do you believe it is a necessary part of living a faithful life?
- Love is evident in Moshe and Malli, both for each other and for God. Do you experience such love in your life? Why or why not?
- The Rabbi (Daniel Dayan) was able to provide Moshe and Malli personal care that brought them both to a higher place of spiritual maturity and relational wholeness. Do you have such a spiritual shepherd in your life? If so, how did you find him or her? If not, where are you looking for one?
- The blessing of God is overwhelming in Moshe’s and Malli’s lives, and yet the difficulty they face is almost as intense while their blessing is a joy. Do you find that to be true in your life as well?