Late in Ushpizin, an Israeli film about the penury, barrenness, and public humiliation endured by a Breslov Hasidic couple in Jerusalem during the holiday of Sukkot, Moshe Bellanga runs to a forested area and beseeches, “Master of the Universe: I don’t want to be angry!” His plea for grace recalls the impish prostitute in Fellini’s masterful Nights of Cabiria who makes a pilgrimage to beg the Madonna for redemption. For both heroes, grim circumstances fail to obliterate, and perhaps even elicit, faith.
But while Giulietta Masina acted her belief, and convincingly too, Shuli Rand has no cause for pretending. An established Israeli actor, he left the profession in 1997 because of his increasingly devout lifestyle but, coaxed by the director Didi Gar, agreed to a comeback if certain conditions were met: No screenings on the Sabbath; kosher catering on the set; and only one woman could appear on screen with him—his wife, who’d never acted before but nonetheless gamely gave it a whirl.
The result is compelling. Rather than a condescending, reductionist exploration into the haredi community or an examination that makes them seem unrealistically righteous, Gar directs a portrait of people who are God-fearing and God-loving and flawed nevertheless. For Moshe and his wife—and perhaps for Rand, who wrote the screenplay, and his wife too—every stroke of fortune, good or ill, is a divine gift. But the vigor of belief is no protection against feelings of malice, sins of omission, and outright lies.
Ultimately, though, their sense of personal agency in the world boils down to zealousness of prayer and fidelity to God; just rewards will flow from there. It’s an understanding different from my own, yet the fear the couple sometimes feels, their hunger for an act of mercy, and the fleeting joys they get to savor too are universal and refreshing to behold.