Recently-widowed Menashe (Lustig) is a man currently struggling against tradition. As per the rules of his community, his young son is not allowed to live with him until he has remarried. Instead his brother-in-law currently has custody, leaving Menashe only being allowed brief outings with his beloved child. The belief is that he would not be able to do a good enough job in raising his child alone, nor would any many according to their traditions. His Rabbi believes Menashe would truly struggle who does not have any of the makings of what makes a Good Man – “A good wife, a good home, nice dishes.” Menashe is determined to prove him and the other doubters wrong, but although he is a good man he is rather helpless and although he is determined his stubbornness may just prove detrimental to his desire of bringing his son back to live with him.
One of the most notable things about Menashe is that it was shot entirely in Yiddish, a language that is rarely heard in contemporary cinema. Inf act it’s the first to be performed almost entirely n Yiddish in about 70 years. The decision to do so was motivated by the subject or, more exactly, where the subject is based. Director Joshua Z Weinstein chose to film his feature film debut – after working previously as a cinematographer and on documentaries – in secret and in the heart of the Borough Park, Brooklyn. That is where one of the largest population of Orthodox Jews resides outside of Israel and where he could get behind the veil to film the insular Hasidic community.
By filming it there, over the course of a two year period, the viewer is then given access to a community it is unlikely they would ever be given access to. They’re exposed to a depiction of the inner-workings and dynamics, the roots it is founded upon and the inter-connections that both maintain it yet monitor it. This does add a degree of authenticity to proceedings and in fact lends itself to several unlikely comparisons with other 2017 cinema releases. Both Moonlight and God’s Own Country are about lives in particular communities and remain specific to those very communities, they are not adjusted to be portrayed in a more universal manner. Instead their respective situations play out in their respective ways, yet are shown and told in such a way as to bring out the universal emotions within them. Whilst the viewer may not belong to that particular community or being going through that particular circumstance, they will be able to access and connect with the emotion that is being created within it.
In the case of Menashe, the viewer may not be living in the Hasidic community or experiencing those exact communal pressures but they may felt their own simillar pressures. There’s feelings of guilt, of not being enough, of desperately wanting to do the right thing yet ending up feeling like the black sheep when everything seems fated against you. The effect is moving and occasionally rather heartbreaking.
In a manner similar to the Italian neorealist movement we play observers to a life far different from our own, with its own dynamics and pressures, and where life is full of everyday struggles. Like The Bicycle Thieves (1948) the film opens with a crowd out of which walks Menashe himself, we then follow him living out his life. The film then ends the same way, Menashe entering a crowd. The camera remaining static as he walks away, he is leaving us or we are now leaving him, his life of pressures set to continue, unaltered by our presence or lack therefore of. As with everyday life – absolute resolution is impossible. It is the small moments that we must not overthink but instead embrace, at first his life may appear very different but in fact it shares more with our own than may be expected.
Dir: Joshua Z Weinstein
Cast: Menashe Lustig, Yoel Falkowitz, Ruben Niborski, Meyer Schwartz, Yoel Weisshaus.
Scr: Alex Lipschultz, Musa Syeed, Joshua Z Weinstein.
Prd: Alex Lipschultz, Traci Carlson, Joshua Z. Weinstein, Daniel Finkelman, Yoni Brook.
DOP: Yoni Brook, Joshua Z Weinstein.
Music: Aaron Martin, Dag Rosenqvist.
Run time: 81 minutes