Menashe review: The most emotionally honest film you'll see this year

Menashe deserves our attention for its oddness and heart alone

Menashe offers outsiders a chance to puzzle over the fascinating mess of influences that form the Yiddish tongue

Film Title: Menashe

Director: Joshua Z Weinstein

Starring: Menashe Lustig, Ruben Niborski, Yoel Weisshaus, Meyer Schwartz

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 81 min

Wed, Dec 6, 2017, 05:00

   

A tension often reveals itself when film-makers go among isolated social enclaves. There is often an urge to show that such people are “just like the rest of us”. But responsible artists also need to honour the singularity of the communities on screen. Joshua Z Weinstein’s quiet, raw drama casually finesses that balance by being entirely true to itself. Its universality springs from its particularity.

Weinstein, whose roots in documentary are visible throughout, sets his film within a Yiddish-speaking Hasidic community in deepest Brooklyn. Even if he hadn’t happened upon such a touching narrative, the picture would have considerable ethnographic interest. Almost nothing of the outer New York finds its way into the picture. Two Latino wags are the only English speakers (a cute irony for Trumpian Wall builders).

The governing influence remains the local rabbi. Firm Talmudic principles govern every social interaction. The picture offers outsiders a chance to puzzle over the fascinating mess of influences that form the Yiddish tongue.

The regime ultimately causes heartache for the amiable, emotional Menashe (Menashe Lustig), forced to hand his son over to the boy’s uncle when his wife dies. The religious rulers find it unacceptable for a man to raise a child on his own. Family is vital. A woman is a necessary companion.

“The gentiles have broken homes and so they have a broken society,” pompous uncle Eizik declares.

A less daring film-maker would have made an ideal parent of Menashe, but the portly shop assistant, though endlessly kind, is forever at home to everyday disasters. When picking up a load of fish, he forgets to close the van doors and sends the produce clattering about the street. At times the picture suggests Kramer vs Kramer with the Jewish establishment in the Meryl Streep role.

Efficient dad

But, whereas Dustin Hoffman learnt how to be an efficient dad, Menashe can, even by the close, scarcely heat a kugel without setting the house on fire. The rabbis might be right for the wrong reasons.

That bumbling nature adds further poignancy to Menashe’s situation. A non-professional actor who slips comfortably into a demanding lead, Lustig shows good instincts for light comedy and high drama. Aware that his problems would be solved if he found a wife, he goes on a disastrous date, during which – clearly no great catch – he tells the woman she is not his type. The poor fellow is as much a prisoner of his own character as of tradition.

Many viewers will expect some sort of rebellion against the strictures. But Weinstein imposes no such movie-movie sensibilities. Menashe finds the rules unfair, but he never suggests those rules shouldn’t apply. “You think this is a free world?” somebody asks rhetorically. Rare is the American film featuring characters who accept “no” as an answer to that question.

And yet. As the film comes to an uncertain conclusion, Weinstein does allow the rabbi one touching moment of sympathy towards our protagonist. It’s not a big thing. On the surface, it looks like nothing more than politeness. But it can be read as an opening of the door to compromise.

Shot with a mobile camera, making spare use of music, Menashe would deserve our attention for its oddness alone. Here is a film featuring a lead actor who had never seen a film before. It goes within one of the world’s most filmed cities to discover an environment rarely revealed to outsiders. But it also wins kudos for the emotional honesty of its uncomplicated narrative. Here are things that happen to few of us. Here are things that happen to all of us.