In the last week I have viewed two overtly religious films.
Generally speaking, I don’t like such films, which are almost always preachy and/or sappy.
I had avoided the first film, Therese (not to be confused with the fine 80s French film of the same title), suspecting it would prove to be a typical offering of the Catholic subculture, second rate by definition.
I made it about fifteen minutes into the movie when I decided I could bear no more. Heavy-handed, sentimental and poorly acted, "second rate" is probably a generous assessment of such an amateurish effort. The only good thing I can say about it is that the landscapes are beautiful, as it was filmed in Normandy.
The second film, Ushpizin (Aramaic for "guests"), was of a very different sort. A subtitled Israeli film, it is set among the Hasidic community of Jerusalem and follows the tale of Moshe, a poor Hasid, and his wife Malli during the Feast of Tabernacles. No longer young, they have not been blessed with children, and are so broke they cannot afford the necessary preparations for the feast.
So they do what good Hasidim do: they pray. Boy, do they pray.
I have always been fascinated with the Hasidic movement within Judaism, and have long seen parallels with the charismatic movement in Christianity. Moshe and Malli are seen addressing God in familiar and passionate terms, praying for a miracle. The man is in one place, his wife in another, and the camera cuts between them and a third scenario that is the evolving miracle.
And so a large sum of money appears. Also appearing are the Ushpizin, the guests of the title: two escaped convicts, an old friend of Moshe’s and his companion. It turns out that there is more to this pious Jew than meets the eye, that he in fact is a convert with a checkered past. As guests for a holy day are seen as a blessing, the two crooks are welcomed into Moshe’s home, with trouble following.
This is one of the very few films I have seen that focuses on the spiritual life and the struggle for conversion without being silly. The world of the Hasidim is beautifully evoked, and the tale of Moshe and Malli portrayed with honesty and humanity. It instantly became a favorite, at or near the top of my personal canon of film.
I picked it up at the local Blockbuster, so it is widely available. If past experience is any indication, this will not last.
Run, don’t walk, to your local video store and rent this film.
Trust me, you are in for a rare treat.