Sometimes movies can transport you to worlds unfamiliar to us, and “Menashe”, which was shown at the Sundance Film Festival early in this year and was recently screened at the Jeonju International Film Festival, is one of such cases. While its specific world and people are quite alien to most of us, it comes close to us via the universal elements of its gentle, intimate human drama, and we come to know and understand its struggling hero as rooting for him more than expected.
The movie is set in the Hasidic community of the Borough Park neighborhood in Brooklyn, and the opening scene shows another mundane working day for Menashe (Menashe Lustig), a portly Hasidic guy who works as a clerk in a grocery shop of his neighborhood. After his working hour is over, he goes to a meeting presided over by one of the rabbis in his neighborhood, and we observe him clumsily trying to recite passages from a Judaistic scripture along with others in the meeting.
After its ethnic background is succinctly established during these two early scenes, the movie lets us get to know more about Menashe. He has been widowed for several months, and he lives alone in his small apartment because he is not allowed to live with his young son Rieven (Ruben Niborski) due to the religious rule of their community. The second marriage can solve this problem, but he is not so eager to have his second wife. During his arranged meeting with a potential match, he brusquely tells her that he does not want to marry for now, and that is the end of their awkward conversation.
Rieven is currently in the custody of Menashe’s affluent brother-in-law Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus), who frequently clashes with Menashe as Menashe attempts to spend more time with his son. As a successful real estate businessman, Eizik can provide a far more stable environment for Rieven, and that may be the best for Rieven’s future, but Menashe really wants to live with his son. As he admits later, his married life was not so happy because he never wanted marriage from the beginning, but his son has always been a small light in his meager life, and that is evident whenever he is with his son. Although his attempts to get closer to his son are strained to say the least, Rieven is happy to be with his father, and Menashe is determined to show to Eizik and others that he can be a father good enough to take care of his son alone.
However, things do not go well for him due to not only bad luck but also his human flaws. When the aforementioned rabbi allows Menashe to live with Rieven for a week before the memorial day of his dead wife, Menashe is happy to get a good chance for proving himself to others around him including his son, but he only finds himself fumbling and bumbling many times. When he happens to wake up late in the morning, he has nothing to give his son for breakfast except coke and leftover cake. During one evening, he takes Rieven to a drinking party, and he soon comes to neglect his son as drinking a little too much.
It can be said that Menashe is a classic case of flawed loser, but the movie emphasizes with its desperate hero through small human moments to observe. He may be pathetic as living without much prospect, but he does try hard for what he wants, and that is why it is often sad and melancholic to watch him inadvertently letting down not only others but also himself. When he insists on holding the memorial ceremony for his dead wife at his apartment, we can clearly see a disaster from the start, and we are not so surprised when his another failure happens later, but we also sense how much he feels hurt by his latest failure.
The director Joshua Z. Weistein, who wrote the screenplay along with Alex Lipshultz and Musa Syeed, did a competent job of generating the vivid sense of close-knit community around his characters. Thanks to the unobtrusive visual approach by Weistein and his co-cinematographer Yoni Brook, the movie is imbued with documentary-like quality, and we often feel like being an unseen observer during many scenes in the film as noticing small and big details from time to time. In case of one small scene, we happen to hear a conversation between two minor female characters, and that tiny moment says a lot about how tradition can stifle people sometimes.
The non-professional cast members of the movie, who mostly speak Yiddish throughout the film, bring a considerable degree of authenticity to the movie. Menashe Lustig is amiable and sympathetic in his unadorned performance, and he and young performer Ruben Niborski click together well as father and son on the screen. Yoel Weisshaus is effectively unflappable as Menashe’s disapproving brother-in-law, and Meyer Schwartz is also memorable as a rabbi who turns out to be more compassionate than he seems.
“Menashe” is a modest low-key character drama which takes its time in unfolding its rather simple plot, and you may feel impatient during its 82-minute running time, but this is an interesting film which not only fascinates us with its very specific ethnic background but also engages us via its universal story. In my inconsequential opinion, it is more engaging than your average blockbuster films, and I recommend you to give it a chance for experiencing something different.