×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Menashe’

A Jewish widower fights for the right to raise his own son in a Brooklyn-based drama that feels as if it was set in another century or country.

Director:
Joshua Z Weinstein
With:
Menashe Lustig, Ruben Niborski, Yoel Weisshaus, Meyer Schwartz. (Yiddish, English, Spanish dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt6333086/

“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.

Film Review: 'Menashe'

Reviewed at Beverly Hills screening room, June 26, 2017. (In Sundance, Berlin, Karlovy Vary film festivals.) Running time: 81 MIN.

Production: An A24 release and presentation of a Shtick Film production. Producers: Alex Lipschultz, Traci Carlson, Joshua Z Weinstein, Daniel Finkelman, Yoni Brook. Executive producers: Adam Margules, Danelle Eliav, Chris Columbus, Eleanor Columbus. Co-executive producers: Johnny Mae, David Hansen. Co-producers: Royce Brown, Melanie Zoey Weinstein, Nancy Medford, David Medford, Gal Greenspan, Maya Fischer.

Crew: Director: Joshua Z Weinstein. Screenplay: Weinstein, Alex Lipschultz, Musa Syeed. Camera (color): Yoni Brook, Joshua Z Weinstein. Editor: Scott Cummings. Music: Aaron Martin, Dag Rosenqvist.

With: Menashe Lustig, Ruben Niborski, Yoel Weisshaus, Meyer Schwartz. (Yiddish, English, Spanish dialogue)

More Film

  • Woolsey Fire Malibu

    Many Malibu Areas Still Off-Limits for Filming After Fire

    The California Film Commission has maintained its ban on filming in several Malibu areas hit by the massive Woolsey fire in Southern California last month. The commission announced Tuesday that due to continued clean-up and repair work along Pacific Coast Highway, permits for filming on the highway are not being issued at this time. PCH [...]

  • Against the Clock

    Film News Roundup: Andy Garcia's Spy Thriller 'Against the Clock' Bought by Gravitas

    In today’s film news roundup, Andy Garcia’s spy thriller is sold, “Battlestar Galactica” gets a screenwriter, and Brooklyn Decker gets an award. ACQUISITION More Reviews London Theater Review: 'The Cane' Film Review: 'The Wedding' Gravitas Ventures has acquired North American rights to spy thriller “Against the Clock,” starring Andy Garcia, Dianna Agron (“Glee”), and Justin [...]

  • 'Pacific Rim Uprising' film premiere

    John Boyega in Talks to Star in Legal Drama 'A Naked Singularity'

    “Star Wars” actor John Boyega is in talks to star in the legal drama “A Naked Singularity” with Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions on board to produce. The movie is based on Sergio De La Pava’s debut novel, which centers on a successful New York public defender whose life begins to unravel after he loses [...]

  • Penny Marshall Dead Obit

    Remembering Penny Marshall, Who Forged Her Own Path and Paved the Way for Others

    She was a natural comedian — fearless and funny, willing to trade on her natural Bronx brogue to craft a sassy and street-wise character that was tailor-made for sitcoms. But Penny Marshall, who died Monday night at the age of 75, proved throughout her long career that she had so much more in the way [...]

  • Aquaman 2018

    'Aquaman' Outpacing 'Wonder Woman' in Fandango Pre-Sales

    Pre-sales of “Aquaman,” which opens on Thursday night, are outpacing “Wonder Woman” at the same point in the advance ticket sales cycle on online ticketer Fandango. “Wonder Woman” opened with $103 million domestically during the June 2 to June 4, 2017, weekend on its way to a $412 million North American total for Warner Bros. “Aquaman,” [...]

  • European Union Placeholder

    Europe, Hollywood Hail Landmark E.U. Territorial Licensing Agreement

    Industry organizations and major companies in Europe and Hollywood welcomed Tuesday a high-level European Union agreement that in large part preserves producers’ ability to sell movies and TV shows on an exclusive territory-by-territory basis. Territorial licensing is a financial backbone of the film and TV business in Europe. Recognition of such licensing came last Thursday in [...]

  • Box Office: 'Aquaman,' 'Mary Poppins Returns'

    Box Office: 'Aquaman' Battles 'Mary Poppins Returns' in Crowded Holiday Weekend

    It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and the most competitive time at the multiplexes. This weekend sees two very different heroes vying for the box office crown with “Aquaman” and “Mary Poppins Returns” both eyeing sizable debuts. “Mary Poppins Returns” is getting a head start by opening on Wednesday, though estimates show “Aquaman” [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content