Film review of Menashe

(This film review of Menashe appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 8 February 2018.)

Directed by Joshua Z. Weinstein; written by Alex Lipschultz, Musa Syeed and Joshua Z. Weinstein; starring Menashe Lustig, Ruben Niborski, Yoel Weisshaus and Meyer Schwartz

In these days of mass entertainment, what a pleasure to discover in the film “Menashe” such a heart-felt authenticity. Set and shot in New York City’s Hasidic Brooklyn neighbourhood Borough Park, “Menashe” sets a modern record: it’s the first American film since “Hester Street” in 1975 in which the characters all speak Yiddish. Although “A Serious Man” (2009) and “The Frisco Kid” (1979) each had a Yiddish scene, contemporary popular film – even from Israel – has avoided the language.

“Menashe” tells the story of its title character, also Menashe, played by Menashe Lustig (a Hasidic actor and YouTube star), upon whose life the film is loosely based. He is a hapless and struggling single father of Rieven (Ruben Niborski) and whose wife Lea has passed away. Instructed by the local rebbe (Meyer Schwartz) to place Rieven in the care of the boy’s uncle (Yoel Weisshaus) and aunt until he re-marries, Menashe struggles to maintain dignity and connection with his son, with whom he has a tender and loving relationship. Every man needs “a good wife, a good home, nice dishes”.

Menashe chafes under the criticisms of his boss at the Hasidic-run supermarket (which sells un-washed lettuce), and painstakingly avoids attempts by well-meaning community members to match-make him with suitable women. The film hints strongly that Menashe’s marriage was less than happy (he admits being relieved but guilty when Lea died), and he appears to be in no rush to remarry, frustrating his potential partners.

Menashe lives a dreary, claustrophobic life, and steadfastly refuses to wear full Hasidic gear, preferring simple shirtsleeves without a top jacket. Menashe needs to prove he’s capable of looking after his son – to his brother-in-law, to the rabbi, to his neighbours, but most of all to himself. Can he overcome the klutziness that has him losing thousands of dollars worth of gefilte fish and burning the kugel he tries to bake? Will he rebel? Does he have the capability and capacity to re-set his life?

To its credit, “Menashe” the film avoids an easy melodramatic approach, one personified in the Netflix documentary “One of Us”, which follows three Hasidic people who leave their communities. The result is something much more subtle; the characters in “Menashe” are all flawed, yet each is sympathetic, three-dimensional and very real. Although director Joshua Z. Weinstein does not speak Yiddish (he worked through a translator), his experience as a documentarian means that he gets “up close and personal” with his actors, and they – although basically all amateurs – get to shine.

“Menashe” is an “insider” film, capturing a verisimilitude that audiences have warmed to. These actors didn’t need Yiddish lessons, but they did need a script and a director to bring their lives to the screen. Although set on a “small” stage, the film’s stories – and its truths – are just large enough to make it a feature film experience, a dramatised slice of modern Jewish life rarely shown so well.

“Menashe” was a great hit at last year’s Jewish Film Festival, and opens in selected cinemas this week.

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