September 1, 2017
Some stories take time to be told properly. They require cultivation and care. They require patience. In the case of Menashe, it took director Joshua Z Weinstein seven years to develop this quiet, family-focused story centered on a widowed Hasidic man struggling to retain custody of his son. Weinstein’s background is in documentaries. He and cinematographer Yoni Brook successfully cultivate an intimate environment within a community that’s frequently seen as secretive, maintaining the innate humanity of the characters. The result in Menashe is a touching, genuine father/son story.
Tucked within Brooklyn, NY, is a small community of Hasidim who live each day according to the laws of the Torah, the holy book of the Jewish people. These laws determine not just religious practices, but the traditions of the community as well. Menashe (Menashe Lustig) is an unkempt, fumbling grocery clerk, and tradition dictates that his son Rieven (Ruben Niborski) must go live with Menashe’s disapproving brother-in-law Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus) until Menashe remarries. When Menashe’s Rabbi (Meyer Schwartz) grants him one week to live with his son in preparation for his wife Leah’s memorial, Menashe sees it as a chance to reconnect with his son and prove to his community that he is a reliable parent.
For readers who may not be familiar: The Hasidim, or members of the Hasidic sect of Judaism, separated from Orthodox Judaism in the eighteenth century. Its participants live a hallowed life in which every single act is sanctified. The clothes they wear, the way they groom, the food they eat, the way they pray, and even the way they celebrate and mourn are all in line with the teachings of their faith. They shun technology that will distract or interfere with their faith, so you won’t find computers, smartphones, or other modern advancements among the Hasidim, unless special exceptions are made. Theirs is not a banal life; rather, it’s one brimming with joy as every act is a spiritual one. This brings us back to the core drama of Menashe, which is of a man at odds with his faith.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Menashe, is that Weinstein and his team used actual members of the Hasidic community, individuals who have never been in a movie theater, let alone acted, to create his cast. When combined with a documentary cinematography style which is highly suggestive of the audience peering into each scene, a rawness, a realness, is found in each moment. Whether observing Menashe washing his hands before getting out of bed (as is the tradition), gathering in prayer, seeking council from the community leadership, or reveling in song and drink, there’s not a single moment that feels inauthentic or unnatural. Truly, the audience could be watching an actual documentary and we would be none the wiser.
The only difference being that audiences are not likely to come away having anything explained to them. Menashe isn’t a film that will explain Hasidim to a common audience, but it will provide exposure of a relatively secretive group of faithful individuals. In this regard, Weinstein and co-writers Alex Lipschultz and Musa Syeed do a masterful job crafting a story of real, complicated individuals and setting the audience up as mere witnesses to the characters’ turmoil – especially Menashe’s difficult struggle as he tries rectify his faith with his fatherhood.
This struggle – between faith and family – is the core of the story, which draws its inspiration from lead actor Lustig’s life. A comedian by trade, Lustig taps into his own experience to convincingly portray a man who desires to be a good father, a good member of his community, and a believer; yet the struggle to align these desires seems directly tied to the loss of his wife. Though Menashe could be played as a fool, a bumbling buffoon whose every action suggestions a complete absence of internal responsibility, Lustig never feels like a first-time performer. His performance is honest and pure, as we see him endeavor to win the trust of his community and, more importantly his son, during his attempts to balance parenthood, work, and faith. As he tries, and fails, over and over again, Lustig’s performance lends real heartbreak and depth.
For those expecting a firm resolution, in the case of art imitating life, there isn’t one, and that doesn’t stop the conclusion from being uplifting. Some may feel this degrades an audience’s investment in the film, but I disagree. The film’s ending is absolutely appropriate as the story is centered on Menashe’s journey of personal and parental rectification.
For some, Menashe may be a confusing, though enlightening, look at a community whose reclusive behavior suggests an isolationist lifestyle. (Alongside English, Menashe’s regular use of Yiddish – an old dialect created from the combination of German and Hebrew in Eastern Europe – as the primary language, may take some getting used to.) For members of the Jewish faith, Menashe will feel like visiting family as the familiar traditions, prayers, and interactions will inspire nostalgia throughout. Either way, the story itself is universal and deeply affecting, making concerns of disconnection moot. Menashe’s story of loss, family, and community is something everyone can relate to.
Through the combination of engaging cinematography and fresh performances, Menashe truly delivers one of the most unique, heartfelt stories of the year.
Star Rating: 4 out of 5.