Menashe may rest on the laurels of its striking USP – it’s a Yiddish-language film starring a father-son duo of non-professional actors – yet it’s both charming and totally immersive. The narrative thrust only really takes in a single issue, and while making for a slight, quiet drama, this narrow approach is entirely appropriate to the secluded orthodox Jewish community Joshua Z Weinstein (no relation) is representing. So too is the casting of the real life Menashe and his actual son. Both give unselfconscious, natural performances, imbuing both the film’s father-son relationship and the Brooklyn Hasidic community with the kind of emotive authenticity that just can’t be faked.
Lustig’s Menashe is largely a gentle giant whose understandable frustrations at his situation sporadically break through his calm veneer in surprising moments that complicate our sense of the character. Menashe excels through intimate character study and commendable performances, but it’s a shame that so much of the drama is confined to drab interiors. In the brief moments outside, the cinematography (by Yoni Brook and Weinstein, who does triple duty alongside writing and directing) becomes far more interesting.
Menashe’s presentation of the titular protagonist’s branch of Judaism is slightly unsettling. Though Menashe never outwardly doubts or renounces his faith, the conservative creeds vigorously upheld by those around him are presented as somewhat of a straitjacket. From a (non-Jewish) twenty-first century perspective, it’s easy to be baffled by the extreme patriarchy of Menashe’s world. Weinstein’s matter-of-fact approach makes few concessions to the ignorance of outsiders, and there’s a sense that the withholding of commentary signals a suppression of his own disillusionment.
An undeniably impressive work guided by an auteur-like Weinstein, Menashe is simultaneously entrancing and beguilingly underdeveloped. The union of Menashe and Rieven is heartwarming and hopeful, yet the subject matter cries out for deeper exploration.
CAST: Menashe Lustig, Yoel Falkowitz, Ruben Niborski, Meyer Schwartz
DIRECTOR: Joshua Z Weinstein
WRITERS: Alex Lipschultz, Musa Syeed, Joshua Z Weinstein
SYNOPSIS: 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.