Within Brooklyn’s ultra-orthodox Jewish community, a widower battles for custody of his son. A tender drama performed entirely in Yiddish, the film intimately explores the nature of faith and the price of parenthood.
Director: Joshua Z Weinstein
Writers: Alex Lipschultz, Musa Syeed
Stars: Menashe Lustig, Yoel Falkowitz, Ruben Niborski
Review by Gilbert Seah
Performed entirely in Yiddish – a language not used in cinema for many decades – Joshua Z. Weinstein’s Menashe is a tender drama that burrows into Brooklyn’s Hasidic community and tells the story of an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish widower who risks losing custody of his son due to tradition. If a film in Yiddish and one about a Hasidic community are not enough to put an audience off, director Weinstein makes a lot of effort to make his story a universal one. Here in MENASHE, which is based on a true story, actually loosely based on the life of lead actor Menashe Lustig, the story is an endearing one, based on character that is of good moral fibre and well-intentioned and an underdog at that. His only sin appears to be his well-meaning intentions going at logger heads to the religious beliefs of his elders and contemporaries.
The film opens with a scene in Brooklyn’s Hasidic Community. Those walking around sport beards and don Jewish apparel. The cameral cuts to a grocery store where the audience is introduced to the lead character, a chubby cashier called Menashe (Lustig). Director Weinstein makes sure Menashe is likeable. His first good deed as grocery cashier is to exchange an unwashed lettuce for a customer.
The film immediately reminds one of the Dustin Hoffman KRAMER VS. KRAMER characters where Kramer (Hoffman) has to prove that he is a father capable of looking after his son alone, while working a full-time job. Although his wife died a year ago, Meneshe (Lustig) refuses to remarry just for convenience. He does try, going on a date as set up by a matchmaker. But his young son (Ruben Niborski) is now living with Menashe’s strict brother-in-law’s family, because the rabbi says the boy won’t be allowed to stay in school unless he’s in a two-parent home. The film is about trying to do what is right but are unable to do so because of laws. It is true that these laws are surely there to protect the majority but what about the special minority? Weinstein, as observed from his film, is pro-Hasidic but does not shy away from the faults of being too religious for religion’s sake. It is also noted that Menashe, at one point in the film, hangs out with other groups, the Latinos of his work, to forget his troubles.
But the film does not tackle the fact that Menashe is actually not a good example of being a father. He is always out of money, always late for appointments and gets drunk once too often.
The film benefits from the cast of mainly non-professionals. Many are from the Hasidic community, many of whom had never seen a film before.
Weinstein’s film provides a simple yet insightful look into a society many are unfamiliar with. His film is likeable and entertaining, but that is about all it has to offer. The film premiered at at the 2017 Sundance and Berlin festivals.
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