Menashe – Film Review by Patrick Viale
Director: Joshua Z Weinstein
Writers: Alex Lipschultz, Musa Syeed
Stars: Menashe Lustig, Yoel Falkowitz, Ruben Niborski
Set among New York’s ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jewish community, Menashe tells the story of a recently widowed grocery clerk trying to get on with his life and regain custody of his young son. Filmed in Yiddish, it gives us an immersive view of life in this close knit society and of the strictures and constraints the rigorous observance of religious practices imposes on its members. Menashe (Menashe Lustig) tries to follow the rules of his faith but his gentleness and humanity often put him at odds with the rigid codes he must observe.
According to Hasidic tradition, children can only be raised in a dual parent family, so after his wife’s death, Menashe, is denied custody of his son, Rieven, by his rabbi, (Meyer Schwartz). Rieven is forced to move in with his unsympathetic uncle, Eizik, and his family. Pressure is put on Menashe to remarry and a disastrous blind date sequence is one of more comic scenes in the film. Even if he marries, his religion forbids the new wife to have any physical contact with his son and Menashe cannot see the point of being forced into a relationship which holds little appeal for him.
When the rabbi allows him and his young son to live together for the week before the memorial service for his late wife, Menashe tries to make it a memorable time for Rieven after his joyless existence at his uncle’s home. He is also determined to prove to his community that he is a mensch and insists on holding the memorial banquet at his house, in spite of the objections of his brother-in-law, Eizik. The film explores the frustrations of this gentle, hapless man trying to get his life back on track for his own sake and his son’s in a strict mono-cultural society which accepts little diversity.
Director Joshua Z Weinstein (not THAT Weinstein) normally makes documentaries and this film has an authentic, low key feel not normally associated with American cinema. Working with a cast of non-professionals in a community that is highly suspicious of film-making, some sequences seem filmed by hidden cameras and give us an almost voyeuristic view of the traditions of this secretive community. Menashe is an unusual and absorbing film that, thanks to a sympathetic and nuanced performance from Lustig, shows us a subtle portrait of the challenge of parenthood and the struggle to retain one’s humanity in the face of imposed religious restrains that seem, ultimately, not just irrational but inhumane.