"Ushpizin" is Hebrew for "visitors," specifically those friends and strangers who may need shelter and sustenance during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. That week-long autumn festival is the setting for this comic drama, about an Orthodox rabbi named Moshe (Shuli Rand) who lives with his wife, Malli (Michal Bat-Sheva Rand), in Jerusalem. As the movie opens, the couple is just scraping by, trying to rub two shekels together, while they pray for a son. By twists of fate and faith, their prayers are answered -- sort of -- in the form of two unexpected visitors.
As cozy and inviting as the small booth that Moshe and Malli build to celebrate the Israelites' exodus from Egypt, "Ushpizin" offers a warm, intimate glimpse of Orthodox Jewish life, so often shrouded in mystery and misunderstanding. Most revelatory here is Malli, who defies the stereotype of submission and subservience and emerges as a woman of self-possession and substance. (The earthily beautiful Bat-Sheva Rand infuses the character with a generous dollop of her own zaftig sensuality.) As a profession of faith, "Ushpizin" ends on a somewhat troubling proselytizing note, but as a portrayal of a heretofore invisible culture, it's an important and welcome cinematic milestone.
-- Ann Hornaday