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Photo by Ted SoquiGidi Dar, the firmly secular director of a sympathetic new movie about a fundamentalist Jewish sect, doesn’t immediately come across as a social healer. The 45-year-old Israeli is acerbic, fast-talking and opinionated — you get the sense he likes nothing better than a good argument. Yet Ushpizin, a zany, touchingly philosophical comedy set entirely within the confines of an Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community in Jerusalem, is a sweet-tempered effort to bridge the deep divide in Israel between an often contemptuous secular majority and the country’s religious minorities, who seal themselves off from a society they consider corrupt. The making of the movie was itself a conciliatory process. Dar’s friend of 18 years, Shuli Rand, a former A-list star of stage and screen who was born again into Ultra-Orthodoxy in the mid-1990s, emerged from retirement to write the screenplay and star with his wife, Michal, as a childless couple who pray for a miracle on the holy day of Succoth and find themselves hosting a pair of disruptive jailbirds risen from the husband’s criminal past. The crew was secular, the cast mostly observant, and Rand’s rabbi was drafted to oversee adherence to Orthodox precepts on the set. And although the film was released on condition that it not play on Shabbat — the prime moviegoing day of the week — it quickly turned into a hit with critics and audiences of all stripes. “Seven hundred thousand Hasidim saw the movie, and they were freaking out, in a good sense,” says Dar, who had been nervous not only about the reactions of the religious community but of his mostly secular fellow filmmakers also, who, he feared, might accuse him of sucking up to fundamentalists. “I thought it was a very, very provocative movie in a way,” he says, and he’s right, if you take into account the fact that the Israeli state was founded on an explicit rejection of the religious values that held Diaspora Jewry together for centuries. Inspired by Soviet socialism — and turned off by what they regarded as the dweeby image of the observant, with their pale, bearded faces, curling side-locks and medieval dress — Israel’s early settlers sought to “normalize” their new society by establishing a modern secular consensus. Dar believes that the cultural baby was thrown out with the political bath water. “We erased such a huge, amazing tradition,” he says, confessing his envy of European filmmakers like Fellini and Bunuel, whose art drew on the very Catholicism they detested.As with many a socialist monolith, Israel’s consensus collapsed when the country grew into a pluralist society, riven by teeming conflicts of ethnicity, class and religion. A once-moribund Israeli cinema, stuck fast in the country’s conflict with the Palestinians and heedless of the rapid social changes in its own backyard, has at last matured, diversified and grown livelier, addressing issues of homosexuality, gender, race, class and — the last taboo — religion in a whole range of genres. Dar is not the first Israeli filmmaker to take on the Ultra-Orthodox. Amos Gitai’s crude, arrogant Kadosh(1999), which Dar dismisses as “a terrible movie,” was as hostile to the undeniably inegalitarian gender politics of the Hasidim as Dar is understanding. Perhaps too understanding, given that Hasidic women have little life outside the home, where they’re required to raise as many children as is biologically possible. Dar waves this objection away a touch too readily. “I was surprised to see that the majority of women are the boss in the family,” he says. “They say, ‘You’re the boss outside, I’m the boss in here,’ and that’s what counts.” As every domestic goddess knows, though, when your power is limited to the four walls of your home, chances are you’ll turn to ballbusting.“When we say ‘fundamentalist’ today, the word is like a curse,” Dar says. “More than half the people in this world — billions — are fundamentalist, and we can’t say that they are all bad. It’s not like we [secularists] are such angels. If we can come to see them as good people trying to be better, then it’s much better for dialogue than hate.” That leaves unresolved the question of the self-imposed exclusivity of fundamentalist communities and their rejection of, even revulsion for the secular world. Still, Dar’s effort to look at this hermetically sealed subculture holistically, from within, is irresistibly fresh. “I was trying to make a movie that would force people to put aside their conflicts,” he says. “We dehumanize the other side as much as they dehumanize us. I searched for a way to overcome this for an hour and a half, to make you look at this world through their eyes.” To judge by the rapturous response, Ushpizin seems to have done just that, tapping into a burgeoning interest in spirituality in Israel and the battle fatigue of a country sick to death of waging war within and across its borders.
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