The Unexpected Joy of Ushpizin: Fundamentalism, With Humanity

Gidi Dar’s Ushpizin, from a screenplay by Shuli Rand, has emerged as the strangest yet still entertaining movie that a secular reviewer like me has seen this year. Its story is slight, but just as William Wordsworth once proposed that, “in the country, incident serves as event,” Mr. Dar and Mr. Rand have demonstrated that, in the hermetically sealed ultra-Orthodox Jewish community depicted in their film, anecdote can serve as epic. Indeed, one’s first glimpse of a street scene consisting of nothing but men with beards, identical hats and black-and-white clothes, jumping with joy in their God without the slightest embarrassment, is likely to jolt one with the force of an invasion from another planet.

As the production notes helpfully inform us: “During the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, it is traditional to live in a wooden shelter for seven days, and to entertain guests (‘ushpizin’ in Aramaic … ). So what if the guests are a couple of escaped convicts from your shadowy past? Newly Orthodox Jews Moshe Bellanga (screenwriter Shuli Rand) and his wife Malli (Mr. Rand’s real-life wife Michal Bat-Sheva Rand), childless and penniless, are in need of a miracle. So when two not terribly holy ‘ushpizin’ show up and infiltrate the couple’s quiet Jerusalem neighborhood with drunken brawls and techno music, they think it must be a test from God.”

Mr. Dar, a secular Jew, and Mr. Rand, his longtime friend who eventually became an ultra-Orthodox Jew himself, collaborated on the making of Ushpizin under Halachic (religious) law. They shot their movie for 25 days in the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Beit Israel and Mea Shearim—and since, according to the ultra-Orthodox codes, a woman cannot be alone with a man other than her husband, nor can a man touch a woman other than his wife, Mr. Rand’s own wife—inexperienced but remarkably persuasive—was cast to play Malli.

As Mr. Dar recalls the genesis of Ushpizin: “I had made two films with Shuli in the past. He was the best actor I had ever worked with. Then he became ultra-Orthodox … and left the business. Eight years later I suggested to him that we should do another movie. As we developed the story together, it became clear to me that this film would be different. It would have to tell the story from two different perspectives at the same time: from the point of view of ‘the believer’ and from a psychological perspective. The psychological approach is more hidden—it investigates the mind of the believer, his internal mathematics and the way he interprets his reality and God.

“I had to dive deep into the ultra-Orthodox experience, even accepting its rules for a while (as they pertain to the film). I agreed to these stipulations because I knew this was the only way I could have an honest look inside this world, which no camera had ever entered. It is an isolated world that lives by the rules of the Torah, revolving around the work of God. As director I did not want to criticize them, but to tell a story about a test of faith that will authentically show the unique way my heroes see their lives, the lives of the believers.”

The complexities and controversies surrounding the role of Orthodox Jewry in contemporary Israel are never addressed in this warm-hearted fable of faith, and I would be the last to rush in where angels fear to tread. Still, the sheer energy and exuberance with which Moshe and Malli pray to God cannot fail to give pause to any facile secular stereotyping of these devout believers. Yet it must be noted that I felt a twinge, even a frisson of anti-fundamentalist resentment when, without any sense of irony or outrage, Malli is compelled to sit in the balcony with the other Orthodox women as her husband cradles their newborn son on the floor below in a religious ceremony at the temple. This placid, even joyous acceptance of the ancient subordination of women seems to fly in the face of the global agitation to redress the imbalance between the sexes.

This is to say that despite the comic flair and emotional force with which Mr. Rand endows his masterly characterization of Moshe, an ex-criminal who must make a prodigious effort to suppress his fierce temper, I never felt that my hard-core secular humanism and skepticism were in any danger of conversion to any form of fundamentalism, even the benign variety on display in Ushpizin. The great achievement of Mr. Dar and Mr. Rand is their success in bridging the gap between secularism and fundamentalism with an even more universal humanism. Now more than ever, secularists and fundamentalists must heed the invocation of W.H. Auden: “We must love one another or die.”

Kid Gloves

Anand Tucker’s Shopgirl, from a screenplay by Steve Martin, based on his novella, turns out to be a surprisingly erotic romance in which Claire Danes, like Maria Bello in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, delivers the goods without losing her soul as a character. Ms. Danes’ Mirabelle Buttersfield is a modern-day Cinderella employed at the glove counter of the Saks Fifth Avenue store in Los Angeles. Before Ray Porter, Mr. Martin’s Silicon Valley tycoon, comes prowling around her counter as a combination faux Prince Charming and (equally faux) fairy godfather, Mirabelle has succumbed to her loneliness by first dating and then bedding a terminally unkempt appliance salesman named Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), who has chatted her up in the basement Laundromat. Despite Jeremy’s continuing infatuation with her, Mirabelle finds it easy to shift her attentions to the infinitely more urbane Ray once he arrives on the scene.

We learn eventually that Mirabelle has come to L.A. from her native Vermont after graduating college to pursue a career as an artist. She is saddled with an enormous student loan that she is being forced to repay bit by tiny bit—a contemporary fact of life for many young people, and one that I’ve never seen addressed in a Hollywood movie before. At first, nothing seems unduly crass in Ray’s patient but accomplished seduction of Mirabelle; indeed, after her misadventure with Jeremy, she certainly seems eager enough, and adventurous enough, to embark on a fling with Ray, who showers her with expensive gifts and takes her for dates in his private jet plane. But it is at this point that Ray shows his true (if somewhat regretful) colors: He tells his acquaintances that Mirabelle is little more than a casual conquest and that she understands the limits of their relationship, at the same time that Mirabelle is confiding to her friends that her relationship with Ray may actually be going somewhere.

When Mirabelle discovers from her loan officer that Ray has paid off her student loan, she is overjoyed and pathetically grateful—until Ray tells her that it’s much easier for him to give her material things than to surrender his heart. One wonders if a practiced seducer of young women would be so willing to confess his own insincerity; Mr. Martin seems to want to have it both ways. Something rings false in Ray’s supposed final epiphany, in which he realizes that he’s been paralyzed by a fear of emotional commitment and, as a result, has lost a woman that he really did love to another man who wasn’t afraid of such a commitment. But the sheer charm of Ms. Danes’ performance, combined with the convincingly resigned sadness of Mr. Martin and the intense sincerity of the singularly uncharismatic Mr. Schwartzman, make this a deeply bittersweet film experience.

There is one curious interlude of mistaken identity in the film, in which one of Mirabelle’s more avaricious co-workers, Lisa (Bridgette Wilson-Sampras), sees Jeremy with Mirabelle and incorrectly infers that he is the Ray Porter who has been buying Mirabelle all those expensive gifts. Puzzled by but not averse to Lisa’s bold advances, Jeremy enjoys her bounty but never stops wondering why she keeps calling him Ray. This plot digression is never followed through in any meaningful way, and the only apparent reason for it seems to have been to display Ms. Wilson-Sampras’ character in action in her most provocative lingerie. Lisa also supplies the intense materialistic craving that is so much a part of the American psyche, but which Mirabelle conspicuously lacks. Indeed, Lisa would quickly degenerate from a sexy comic-relief character to a completely unsympathetic figure if she did any real emotional damage to the fragile Mirabelle.

Everyone loves Mirabelle, from director Tucker, who gives her a visual, almost ceremonial centrality in his carefully composed mise-en-scène, to writer/producer/lead actor Martin, who yearns for her like a quasi-Shavian Henry Higgins longing for the soul of Eliza Doolittle, to Mr. Schwartzman’s Jeremy, the bemused winner of Mirabelle, who clearly cannot believe his good fortune, because Mirabelle is too good to be true. And so she is—but why should we complain? As I said at the outset, Ms. Danes delivers the goods and then some.

The Good Fight

Niki Caro’s North Country, from a screenplay by Michael Seitzman, was inspired by a book with the self-explanatory title Class Action: The Story of Lois Jenson and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law, by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler. From what I gather from secondhand sources, the collective tendencies of the original text have been somewhat fictionalized to produce an Oscar-worthy vehicle for Charlize Theron as Josey Aimes, a battered wife and the mother of two children by different fathers. After divorcing her abusive husband, Josey goes home to live temporarily with her parents, Hank (Richard Jenkins) and Alice (Sissy Spacek), both of whom urge her to patch things up with her ex-husband for her children’s sake. But when the ex appears at their front door seeking reconciliation, Josey angrily sends him away: All she can think of now is getting a job that can support her and her kids in a place of their own, and the only job that pays enough to a woman in that part of northern Minnesota is in the iron mine where her father works. The job is dirty and dangerous, and though there are a few women already in the work force, Hank is opposed to seeing his daughter among them. But Josey won’t listen, and off she goes to what turns out to be a living hell.

All this information is conveyed in a long flashback from the film’s opening scenes in a courtroom, where Josey is waging an uphill battle to sue the mining company for the sexual harassment and mistreatment that she and the other women have routinely received from some of the men in the mine. Aside from their ingrained lechery and sexism, the men are embittered by the Supreme Court–mandated quotas for the hiring of women in their once exclusively male preserve.

From the beginning, Josey receives little support or encouragement from the other women, except for her old friend Glory (Frances McDormand), who suggested the job in the first place. Josey’s reputation as the town slut has preceded her, and this makes her even more of a target for harassment by the men. The story brought up at trial is that Josey had slept with her high-school teacher at the age of 14 and even had a child by him. To make matters almost completely unbearable for her, even her own son Sammy (Thomas Curtis) sides with the town against her. Gradually, however, the legal tide begins to turn from blackness to bleakness to a hope for justice.

Part of this reversal in Josey’s fortunes is engineered by a venturesome lawyer named Bill White (Woody Harrelson), who agrees to take her case with the hope that Josey can persuade the other women in the mine to join her cause. The company has demanded affidavits from these women denying Josey’s charges as the price of keeping their jobs. The male-dominated union is of little help, until Josey’s father grabs the mike at a meeting to denounce his fellow union members for consenting to the mistreatment of his daughter and the other women at the mine. This turnabout leads to others, and the film grinds its way to the preordained dénouement.

Despite the note of triumph at the end, the film as a whole is vaguely depressing—not so much because of the outrageous actions of the male miners, but because of its constant reminder of how powerless most of us are in this increasingly plutocratic society, especially when all the chips are down. Norma Rae, Erin Brockovich, and Josey Aimes notwithstanding, a handful of victories (more or less) for fairness and justice don’t seem to have made that much difference over the last quarter of a century.

South Korean Follies

Im Sang-soo’s The President’s Last Bang (Geuddae Geusaramadeul), from his own screenplay, takes the real-life assassination of South Korean President Park Chung Hee (Song Jae-ho) on Oct. 26, 1979, and turns it into a buoyantly Brechtian fable of governmental bureaucracy run amok. No knowledge of recent South Korean history is necessary to appreciate the strange mixture of lyricism and slapstick that Mr. Sang-soo employs to satirize the absurdist follies of South Korean politics. Frankly, though I did have a hard time following all the intrigue, it was mainly because so many of the characters were attired in the same impersonal, bodyguard-style blue suits that, at a distance, one felt embedded in a science-fiction fantasy in which the androids are endlessly replicating. Every so often, one blue suit will sucker-punch another blue suit in the belly, just to show him who’s boss.

The movie chronicles the doomed South Korean president’s last self-indulgent night in a safe house operated by the KCIA, a super agency combining the functions of the F.B.I. and C.I.A., with the kind of broad powers to combat “subversion” that its American counterparts can only dream about. KCIA director Kim (Baek Yun-shik) takes it upon himself to rid the country of its increasingly dissolute and corrupt president, and for his action is tried and executed by the panic-stricken army and Parliament. The slowly wandering camera offers its own fatalistic comment on the chaos of an inner circle in turmoil. One of the biggest post-mortem questions is whether to tell the Americans what happened; it is now a question being asked around the world about the Americans themselves. The President’s Last Bang is as funny as its title promises. I can think of no higher praise. The Unexpected Joy of Ushpizin: Fundamentalism, With Humanity