Film reveals a softer side of fundamentalists

Film reveals a softer side of fundamentalists October 28, 2005

Chicago Sun Times
October 28, 2005 Friday, Final Edition

Copyright 2005 Chicago Sun-Times, Inc. All Rights Reserved Section: RELIGION; Pg. 52; Religion

Length: 1015 words
Byline: Cathleen Falsani, The Chicago Sun-Times

Fundamentalists are scary. They’re the new Russians.

For a while, every villain in an action movie sounded like Boris Badenov. Over time, the Borises were replaced by menacing South American druglords, and then, a few years later, by generic pan-Arabian “terrorists.”

Glinty-eyed, scheming fundamentalists (of whatever religious persuasion) are the latest incarnation of celluloid villainy, oppressing liberals, spreading small-mindedness like the avian flu and generally frightening the masses with their vengeful, jealous God.

They’re supposed to be meanies. We’re not supposed to like them. I mean, Kevin Bacon’s dancing rebel is the hero of “Footloose,” not John Lithgow’s daughter-smacking pastor, right?

Making fundamentalists lovable would be edgy, man, like casting a chubby gal as Brad Pitt’s love interest, complete with steamy nude sex scenes. And Hollywood doesn’t like edgy, especially when it comes to religion.

Ask Albert Brooks. Earlier this fall, Sony movie execs scuttled plans to distribute his new film, “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World,” unless he changed the title. They were afraid of the “M” word, apparently, and thought it might offend some people, and that’s bad for box office. (Happily, Brooks has found another distributor and the film, which is about his character — a comedian — being dispatched to India and Pakistan by the U.S. government to find out what makes Muslims laugh, will be released early next year.)

That’s part of what makes Israeli director Gidi Dar’s new film such a triumph on so many fronts.

Dar’s “Ushpizin” — a Hebrew word that means, basically, “holy houseguests” — which opens in Chicago-area theaters today, manages to make fundamentalists funny and lovable, without making them laughable. The film, which is the first secular feature-length film to be shot inside Jerusalem’s Ultra-Orthodox community, is a dramedy about the spiritual, physical and psychological struggles of a cash-strapped Hasidic couple during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.

Sukkot, which was celebrated last week, commemorates the wandering of the Israelites in the desert, where they lived in temporary dwellings, or sukkah. During Sukkot, observant Jews erect little huts outside there homes where they eat and (often) sleep for seven days. It is considered a particular blessing to have guests, ushpizin, during Sukkot.

In Dar’s film, the couple, Moshe and Malli Bellanga, played by real-life husband-and-wife actors Shuli Rand and Michal Bat Sheva Rand (who are themselves Hasidic and live in one of Jerusalem’s Ultra-Orthodox communities), are broke and, after five years of marriage, childless. Some years earlier, they had made the commitment to become “religious,” i.e. to embrace the Ultra-Orthodox lifestyle and while they are spiritually richer, they are penniless.

They argue, they pray, sing, dance, laugh and look for signs from God. And then, they believe, a miracle happens. It’s about this time that the ushpizin arrive: two ne’er-do-well, not-so-ex-convicts who knew Moshe Bellanga before he was such a holy roller.

This refreshingly sweet, surprisingly droll film is so unique that I don’t want to give any more of the plot away than I already have. Suffice to say, tension, enlightenment and hilarity ensue.

Dar, 45, who describes himself as a thoroughly secular Jew, shot the film, which was written by Shuli Rand — himself a one-time A-list Israeli actor who left the business a decade ago after he became a kind of born-again Jew and embraced the Hasidic lifestyle — inside Jerusalem’s Ultra-Orthodox Breslau neighborhood. All the extras in the film are actual Hasidim from the ‘hood.

With his secular background, some people may have expected Dar to mock Jewish fundamentalists rather than present them as the complicated, profound and funny people that they are. His intention, the director told me on the phone the other day, was to try to cross the abyss that lies between secularism and fundamentalism, a rift that is a perennial source of acrimony in his native Israel.

“The issue of faith, even more than religion, is interesting to me,” Dar said. “It is one of the main issues I am dealing with always: the space between the imagined and the real. At the end of the day, what lies between those two lines is faith. Any kind of faith. Not just religion. We all live in some kind of faith. None of us lives in the realm of the real. . . . We cannot touch the real.”

Where you wind up — on the secular side of life or in the midst of a fundamentalist bunker — depends on how you interpret the signs, Dar said.

“We’re all surrounded by signs, they’re being thrown at us, an endless amount of signs,” he said. “We choose which ones we ignore, which ones we take. And when we make those choices, we actually define the way our reality is going to be. That is the practice of faith.

“When you look at a very religious person doing that, it is very easy to see. But we all do that, not just religious people. So in a way this movie shows faith in a very authentic way. In another way, it follows the mind of the believer, which is a very different story. It’s my story.”

As Dar talked, I thought about something the church historian Martin Marty once told me about fundamentalists (which, for the purposes of this discussion, are defined as religious folks who adhere strictly to a conservative interpretation of their tradition and feel entirely threatened by the modern, pluralistic world and, therefore, react strongly against it). Marty says in some ways fundamentalists have more in common with each other, whether they’re Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu or Sox fans, than they do with mainline or liberal members of their own religion. It’s a mind-set that they share, not a set of beliefs, and every religion has them.

Ushpizin, and my chat with Dar, also reminded me about the nature of faith. Faith is a thing, like joy or heartburn. There aren’t different faiths, just different ways of expressing it.

Faith is the same.

And for a lot of us, that’s a scary thought.



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