Released: 8th December 2017
Directed By: Joshua Z Weinstein
Starring: Menashe Lustig
Reviewed By: Sinead Beverland
Stories are universal, it is their context and voice which makes them unique and ‘Menashe’ is no different. Set inside the Brooklyn Hasidic Jewish community, the film tells the tale of a widowed man struggling to cope and keep custody of his only son. Immediately this is a story we understand, with an emotional core that is beautifully empathetic. What makes it unique however, is the authentic depiction of strict-orthodox characters and the world which surrounds them.
Menashe is a grocery store worker, his wife (Lea) has passed away and his son, Rieven has gone to live with his uncle, Eizik. His son may return home once Menashe has remarried and thus has a complete family unit to offer. To the viewer and the outsider, this seems a painful and cruel separation that is difficult to understand, yet in the context of the strict community, it is merely laid bare as a way of life. Menashe is a good man, he is trying his best to do the right thing but seems beset by problems at every corner. His boss finds continual fault, he is pressurised in to finding a new wife and is trapped in permanent conflict with his (rather more successful) brother in law Eizik. He is the quintessentially flawed individual that we can all relate to.
At the core of the film, the relationship between father and son is impossible to separate from religion and community. Everything is inextricably bound together, which is both fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. Consequently, the most touching scenes are between Menashe and Rieven, when they are granted a week together prior to Lea’s memorial. It is striking that the relationship is so familiar and recognisable, both in its highs and lows. From tender, funny moments of eating ice cream to the pain of Rieven phoning his Uncle when he feels his dad has had too much to drink; these are emotions we can all share. Similarly, a scene between Menashe and his Hispanic co-workers not only provides a contrasting moment but also gives Menashe a chance to expose his feelings and reveal more back story. Guilt and loss crash together and again we can empathise with the strains of life that are felt by everyone.
Harking back to his documentary roots, Director Joshua Weinstein grounds ‘Menashe’ with a naturalistic, fly on the wall feel. Spoken in Yiddish and shot on location in the Borough Park neighbourhood of Brooklyn, Weinstein has captured the community as it exists. Providing little explanation about the Jewish way of life, their world is left to unfold naturally in front of the viewer, resulting in a shower of different emotions. By turns surprising, intriguing and frustrating, it is a credit to the sensitivity of the film that as a viewer, you do not end up feeling judgemental. It is worth noting that Weinstein found his cast from non-actors within the community. This of course means performances can be slightly uneven, however, Menashe Lustig (playing a similar character to his real life self) injects the screen version of Menashe with charm, humour and truth.
As a drama, the film chooses to display life rather than challenge the status quo, which ultimately may not be entirely satisfying, but as a story of fatherhood and religion, it raises interesting questions. Does faith need to stay so firmly rooted in tradition? Is there not room for expansion and change without losing the essence of spirituality and belief? I believe so, but we are all entitled to make our own choices in life, as indeed is Menashe.