Menashe looks, with tenderness and equanimity, at a Hasidic community in Brooklyn – The Denver Post

Posted By on August 16, 2017

Walking around Borough Park must feel, to some, like time travel. Residents of the southwest Brooklyn neighborhood are predominantly Orthodox Jews, whose 18th-century traditions still govern everything from custody disputes to attire.

In Menashe, filmmaker Joshua Z Weinstein turns his camera on this community, using non-actors to create a tender portrait of family. In addition to the fascinating everyday details of these characters lives, at the films moving core is a loving father who is struggling to negotiate the gap between community expectations and self-determination.

The title character (played by real-life grocer Menashe Lustig) is a gregarious, oafish type who cant seem to catch a break. After his wife, Leah, passed away, his young son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski), has gone to live with Leahs brother Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus), in keeping with tradition. The reasoning? According to Hasidic culture, a home is incomplete without a woman to raise children and tidy the household. The arrangement will continue until Menashe finds a second wife.

Hes in no rush. Although the extent of his grief is unclear, Menashes peers increasingly see him as a loser. In a fit of frustration, Menashe announces that he wants to raise Rieven on his own. When the rabbi sanctions Menashes decision, albeit temporarily, Menashe aims to prove himself by hosting Leahs memorial ceremony.

Weinstein took his time to ingratiate himself with a community that does not welcome outsiders. Before filming, he gained their trust by putting on a yarmulke and spending time in apartments and at parties and religious gatherings. Lustig stood out hes naturally charismatic and goofy and the film is based on his real-life experience as a widower.

Menashe mixes such cinema verite techniques as natural light and hand-held camerawork with human drama that sidesteps the expected. Weinstein got his start as a camera operator on documentaries, and that experience is an asset here: There are many scenes that capture meaning in the routine, whether its how Menashe gets ready for bed or how he participates in community prayer. At the same time, the film doesnt burrow into the tenets of Jewish dogma. Tradition and ritual are what interest Weinstein, as well as the understated suggestion that Menashe might be more modern and secular than his peers.

Although one character discusses the pervasive depravity of gentiles, Weinstein and his co-screenwriters Alex Lipschultz and Musa Syeed are careful not to judge either community. Some of their choices are bizarre: In one gently comic scene, Menashe goes through the motions of a date, barely hiding his disinterest when his companion announces her belief that women shouldnt be allowed to drive.

By focusing on the details of his characters lives, Weinstein finds common ground on both sides of the religious divide. Menashes boss is a pain, and so is his brother-in-law. Menashe worries about his son, and he has too much pride to ask for help.

These are universal problems, filmed without melodrama. Many characters keep their feelings buried, engaging in the ubiquitous tribal gossip to mask what they really think. The Yiddish language barrier that most viewers will face also adds some mystery to the drama, because there are stretches of dialogue where the characters seem to be saying way more than the subtitles convey.

In a recent interview with NPRs Robert Siegel, Weinstein said that Lustig had never been inside a movie theater until the films Sundance premier. The actors separation from contemporary Western culture pop culture in particular lends his character a unique presence. In scene after scene, Menashe strikes complex notes without telegraphing how the audience should feel.

Theres an odd freedom to this kind of storytelling, even if the communitys gender inequality grows more glaring as the movie goes on. (There are no women at Leahs memorial.) Critiquing this community, however, would undermine Weinsteins greater purpose.

Menashe has little desire to leave the Orthodox world, or to explain what it means to him. But if you were to chat with him over a beer, I suspect, you might find an easygoing rapport that would surprise you.

Three and one-half stars.

Rated PG.

In Yiddish with subtitles.

81 minutes.

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Menashe looks, with tenderness and equanimity, at a Hasidic community in Brooklyn - The Denver Post

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