Ushpizin stands on its own considerable charms as the droll fairy-tale story — or is it a biblical parable? — of a poor and childless ultra-Orthodox couple in modern Jerusalem who invite a couple of strangers — secular prison escapees, it turns out — to their dinner table during the Jewish festival of Sukkoth, and are blessed in return. (The title is Aramaic for ”holy guests.”)
Background knowledge adds, though, to the pleasure of Gidi Dar’s warm and compassionate drama. Shuli Rand, who stars, was himself a well-known secular Israeli actor who performed in two of Dar’s films before he was drawn to religious observance and gave up acting. Ushpizin became the means by which the two friends could work together again, a collaborative story respectful to believers, shot among actual ultra-Orthodox adherents. The unusual intimacy and authenticity can’t be faked: The cast is peppered with nonprofessionals, most notably Michal Bat Sheva Rand, in a vivacious on-screen interpretation of her real life as Rand’s modest wife.