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UNORTHODOX MEETING OF ISRAEL'S SECULAR, RELIGIOUS JEWS.

Byline: Bob Strauss Film Critic

ONE OF THE best character-based comedies of the year, ``Ushpizin'' (that's Aramaic for ``Holy Guests'') comes to us from a most unexpected source.

Shuli Rand was a popular Israeli actor before he became Orthodox and dropped out of the business. Years later, he reconnected with a secular director friend, Giddi Dar, and they decided to make a movie that might bridge the wide gap between the nation's ultra-Orthodox and less-observant Jews.

So Rand wrote ``Ushpizin's'' wonderfully perceptive script about a poor Jerusalem yeshiva instructor whose efforts to celebrate the festival of Sukkot lead to comic, confronting and, lord willing, enlightening complications.

Rand also plays the hulking but humble Moshe Bellanga. Moshe is deeply in love with his wife, Malli (played by the actor's wife, Michal Bat-Sheva Rand, a talented amateur who was drafted into the project when religious restrictions forbade her husband from acting opposite another woman). But after five years of marriage, they remain not only childless but nearly destitute.

``Truth be told, God Almighty, I'm down in the dumps,'' Moshe prays on the eve of the festival, in which believers build and stay in temporary shacks, called sukkahs, to acknowledge both the Exodus and the transient nature of man's time on this Earth. Then a seeming miracle or two enable the Bellangas to celebrate Sukkot in style.

An even greater blessing is to host visitors, and when two show up, the devout couple are in heaven. However, it turns out that Eliyahu (Shaul Mizrahi) and Yossef (Ilan Ganani) are convicts who've skipped out on their furloughs rather than return to prison.

An old crony of Moshe's from back in the days before he got religion and met Malli, Eliyahu figures the Bellangas' sukkah is the perfect place to lay low for a while. Their hosts happily wine and dine their crude guests, whose behavior grows increasingly unsettling. Eliyahu, who really can't believe how much his old buddy has changed, makes ominous references to Moshe's tempestuous past. All hell, inevitably, breaks loose.

Funny as it is, ``Ushpizin'' never loses track of the complex nature of individuals' relationship with one another and - in a lot of cases here - with their God. Moshe's growing spiritual crisis is rarely played for laughs, but that's out of an underlying commitment to character integrity more than, say, fear of offending anyone. Anyway, while it certainly doesn't shy away from the darker aspects of human nature, ``Ushpizin'' has an open and accepting vibe that really does make the case for strict believers and wayward secularists sharing some common ground.

Plotwise, ``Ushpizin'' bears several resemblances to, of all things, David Cronenberg's ``A History of Violence.'' Yet, as culturally foreign as the Israeli film is to me, I believed in its people a lot more. Something divine going on there? By one definition of the word, I'd be reluctant to say. But if we're talking another meaning of divine, most definitely.

Bob Strauss, (818) 713-3670

bob.strauss(at)dailynews.com

USHPIZIN - Three and one half stars

(PG-13: violence)

Starring: Shuli Rand, Michal Bat-Sheva Rand, Shaul Mizrahi, Ilan Ganani.

Director: Giddi Dar.

Running time: 1 hr. 30 min.

Playing: Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino; Laemmle Royal, West L.A. Opens Friday at Laemmle Regent Showcase, Hollywood.

In a nutshell: A poor Orthodox Jew's celebration of the Sukkot holiday is upended when a buddy from his criminal past shows up. Engaging humanistic comedy is the first made by religious and secular Israelis working together. In Hebrew with English subtitles.

CAPTION(S):

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Photo:

An Orthodox Jewish couple, Malli (Michal Bat-Sheva Rand) and Moshe Bellanga (Shuli Rand), childless and destitute, prepare to celebrate Sukkot in ``Ushpizin.''
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 19, 2005
Words:611
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