Anyone who’s familiar with Hasidic Judaism will know that Menashe is a marvel. Not because it’s a good film, although it is. It’s because documentarian and first-time feature director Joshua Z Weinstein pulled off a near-miracle: He set and filmed his story within Brooklyn’s Hasidic community, an ultra-Orthodox people who isolate themselves from others and eschew anything from modern society that might sully them, including television and cinema. And Weinstein wasn’t asking them to, say, watch a movie. He asked them to be the movie.
The director shot in secret, and the film is one of very few performed entirely in Yiddish. (Weinstein used a translator.) Reportedly, Weinstein had a difficult time casting, with actors he had hired abruptly changing their minds. He kept the number of characters minimal and lucked out with his titular star: Menashe Lustig, on whose life the story is largely based.
Menashe is the Homer Simpson of the Hasids. Chubby and in his 30s, he drinks too much, dresses sloppily, and screws up at his job at a grocer’s. (“It’s nothing but problems with you,” his manager says.) He always runs late and is behind on rent. And because he’s a widower, he’s not allowed to raise his young son, Rieuven (Ruben Nyborg), who instead resides with Menashe’s more successful, married, and outwardly hostile brother-in-law, Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus).
Torahic law dictates that Menashe must remarry before Rieuven can return home. But although he goes on a few matchmaker-set dates, Menashe isn’t all that crazy about the idea of taking another wife. So he frequently begs Eizik to have sympathy. Not an option: “The gentiles have broken homes, and so they have a broken society,” Eizik responds. Yet Menashe persuades the rabbi to let Rieuven stay with him for one week, culminating in a traditional memorial dinner for Menashe’s wife that he insists he can host in his small apartment, regarding it as a chance to prove he’s not as hapless as everyone thinks.
Throughout, Menashe is quiet and tender, but it’s especially so when father and son are together. Menashe is 75 percent good cop, goofing around with Rieuven, taking him for ice cream, and sprinting to get him to school on time after serving a breakfast of cake and soda because Rieuven couldn’t wake him. Yes, that is sweat on his brow; Weinstein ensures that Menashe’s inability to catch up in any area of his life is physically represented as well. Most of the time, he accepts the constant criticism of others with a hangdog demeanor. But he doesn’t stand for being overruled regarding his wife’s memorial dinner: “I am not the outsider here!” he yells.
Viewers who aren’t privy to ultra-Orthodox customs aren’t always given context, which makes scenes such as a group of men, including the rabbi, tossing back shots and singing somewhat curious. (This, Menashe does too well.) But there’s a universality to the rest that all will recognize: You’ve screwed up at work. You’ve embarrassed yourself after too many drinks. And, sadly, if you haven’t experienced it yourself, you know someone who’s gone through a custody battle. The reasons for separating parent and child are numerous. But Menashe shows that even though a father may eat, pray, and love differently, his bond with his son is something anyone can comprehend.
Menashe opens Friday at Landmark Bethesda Row and the Angelika Film Center.