Ushpizin is set around the time of Succoth, a Jewish religious festival. An initial intertitle explains its various facets for the outsider, though essentially we need know only one thing: this is a holiday movie, albeit a Jewish one, and as such effectively no different from Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story, say. It’s populist, uplifting, contains a “miracle” or two, and is generally easy-going.
That said, this is no case of mere cinematic tourism. The film comes with an assurance about the community it captures and feels as though it genuinely understands. During its initial scenes Ushpizin could easily develop into a kind of Jewish Short Cuts such is the detail found in its minor character and incidents. At times it even appears as though we’re watching a documentary, director Giddi Dar having seemingly shot on location for real as it were, placing his actors within the everyday lives of the community at large.
As an overall portrait of Jewish life, however, Ushpizin ultimately lacks the vigour found in Amos Gitai’s Kadosh, say, or the underrated documentary Trembling Before G-d. The reason is simple – the populist attitude – and it renders the film somewhat overripe, perhaps even predictable. Essentially this is the tale of a rabbi and his wife who are short on cash and hoping for a child. That’s two miracles for Ushpizin to fulfil before the end credits, plus there’s the question of the two titular guests (ushpizin translating as just that), a pair of criminal types, one of whom hails from our rabbi’s violent past. Cue various small-scale dramas, all of which are lightly sketched as opposed to darkly hued, leading to the inevitable affirmative ending in which everyone finds their own happiness.
Released in the UK by Lion’s Gate, Ushpizin comes as a single-layered extras-free disc with only a reasonable presentation. Thankfully the original aspect ratio is preserved and anamorphically enhanced, whilst the English subtitles are optional, but other than this there is little to be impressed by. The soundtrack comes only in DD2.0 form whilst there’s ghosting throughout suggesting an NTSC-PAL transfer. Ultimately the film remains watchable (and the print is at least in as decent a condition as should be hoped for from such a recent production), but surely DVD companies can do much better by now.