The independent film Menashe, a drama about a widowed Hasidic Jew struggling to take care of himself and his young son, is an interesting, and respectful, look at life inside a New York Hasidic community.
A large part of the film’s appeal is its authenticity. It was shot on location in Borough Park, Brooklyn (home to a very large Orthodox Jewish community) and is very loosely based on the life of Menashe Lustig (who plays the title character in the film). The cast is comprised almost entirely of real Hasidim who are not professional actors. It is also performed almost entirely in Yiddish. Director Joshua Weinstein is a documentarian making his first fiction film and he brings that mentality to this film. This is about as close as a fiction film can get to real life. Menashe does an excellent job bringing the private world of Orthodox Judaism out into the public.
A big plus in the film’s favor is the likable performance by Lustig as a pleasant, lovable, incredibly frustrating man who would have more success in life if only he could get out of his own way. The character could have been insufferable but Lustig, supposedly playing someone not too different from himself, plays him as a good man struggling to figure out what he really wants his life to be.
The basic story of Menashe (a man struggles to take control of his life so he can gain the respect of those around him) is not exactly an original one. There have been many independent films with similar stories. However, what makes this particular film special is its access to the very specific world its characters reside in. Their religion is not just important to them, it is the most important thing in the world.
The scene where Menashe and his brother-in-law Eizik (who, on the order of their Rabbi, has been put in charge of Menashe’s son Rieven until Menashe remarries) bring their argument to their Rabbi is handled with great care and respect. Clearly, this Rabbi’s knowledge of the Torah is prized by his community and his rulings are adhered to with the utmost deference. Many films that take place inside closed-off religious communities show their leaders as selfish or corrupt. They have only their own interests in mind. This Rabbi is presented as a learned man who really is trying to use his position to improve the lives of those who come to him for his wisdom. Even if Menashe or Eizik do not like his decisions, they would never defy him. That kind of action would go against their beliefs. Menashe truly understands that and never belittles these people.
One of the great things about the cinema is its ability to take us into a world we would never be able to enter otherwise and allow us to relate to and empathize with its inhabitants. Menashe (a seemingly short 78 minutes minus the end credits, though it feels as long as it needs to be) is special because of its insights into a world that is rarely, if ever, seen on film. It is smart, compassionate and true to life in a way fiction films usually do not even attempt to be. It is not quite a great film, but it is a valuable one.
4 out of 5
Menashe Lustig as Menashe
Ruben Niborski as Rieven
Yoel Weisshaus as Eizik
Meyer Schwartz as Rabbi
Directed by Joshua Z. Weinstein
Written by Alex Lipschultz, Musa Syeed and Joshua Z. Weinstein