“Menashe” is a rarity among American indies: a foreign-language film set in the middle of urban New York City (technically, Borough Park, Brooklyn). Apart from a few lines of English, and a few more in Spanish, the vast majority of the dialogue is in Yiddish, as spoken by the Orthodox Jewish community the movie depicts. Naturally, language alone will be a limiting factor in this deserving drama’s ability to find an audience, but it enhances the authenticity of documentary director Joshua Z Weinstein’s narrative debut, which invites audiences into the insular world of Hasidic New York via a character they won’t soon forget, memorably embodied by first-timer Menashe Lustig.
Like nearly the entire cast, Lustig has never acted professionally, bringing an awkwardness to the role that makes Menashe all the more endearing — a necessary quality in a film that questions whether the character is fit to be a single father in a culture that strictly insists that children be raised in dual-parent households (how quickly we forget that the same pressures were applied to non-Jews, too, a few decades earlier). That means as a young widower, Menashe must remarry immediately, or else agree to surrender custody of his young son Rieven (Ruben Niborski) to his more stable brother-in-law Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus) — the solution suggested by the Ruv (his neighborhood rabbi, played with near-Solomonic wisdom by Meyer Schwartz).
What Menashe wants is the right to raise Rieven himself, but that’s not so simple in a community that makes and enforces its own laws. However, instead of challenging the institution — the way celebrated Israeli divorce drama “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” did a few years earlier — “Menashe” surprisingly seems to agree with the assumption that the rule was created with the child’s best interests in mind, depicting its protagonist as a disheveled screw-up, incapable to keeping even a baby chicken alive.
This may in fact be a fair representation (on an awkward first date, an eager-to-remarry widow complains about Hasidic men, “Your mothers spoil you, then wives take over”), but it defies the liberal slant of most ethnographic religious films, which typically argue for individuality and personal freedom (the subtext of John Turturro’s “Fading Gigolo,” set on the periphery of the same world). Rather than suggesting that the Hasidim must adapt to Menashe, the film offers its protagonist a more realistic choice: He must either agree to conform or leave the culture to which he somewhat defiantly belongs.
True to his roots — as a nonfiction filmmaker, for he has no personal ties to the Brooklyn Hassidim — Weinstein constructs this neorealist portrait as a series of seemingly unscripted fly-on-the-wall scenes, outlined in such a way as to reveal the situation, while resisting the impulse to spoon-feed much-needed exposition. Governed by strict rules that are hardly intuitive to non-Jews, Menashe observes many (as when he complains to his boss about selling unwashed lettuce at the grocery where he works), but also proves defiant in arbitrary ways (as when he refuses to wear the traditional black coat and hat, inexplicably dressing like a slob instead, with his undershirt on the outside).
Menashe is a mix of contradictions: He ritualistically washes, but lives in squalor, drenched in flop sweat, offering his son cake and soda for breakfast. His apartment clearly lacks a woman’s touch — which is basically the Ruv’s point in pushing him in that direction. And yet, as depicted, marriage is a depressing, often loveless contract. At one point, Menashe confesses to feeling relief when his own wife passed away, and he’s clearly in no hurry to reenter another such arrangement (although one could hardly argue that he’s better off alone).
The movie depicts a series of frustrating incidents in which the character struggles to demonstrate some sense of responsibility, convincing no one — not the Ruv, not his boss, and most heart-breaking of all, not his son, who actually calls Eizik to rescue him at one point. Perhaps there are viewers out there who see a hapless single father like this and instinctively want to marry him as-is (in one scene, Menashe asks a neighbor for a kugel recipe, and you can practically feel the movie implying a matchmaking opportunity with her pregnant teenage daughter), but that doesn’t mean we don’t care about the character. And though the fate of his journey isn’t terribly well communicated, it’s a privilege to have observed Menashe’s world from the inside.