Menashe is a redemption song in a minor key, played perhaps on a weathered shofar. A simple, somnolent story set in the cloistered subset of a subset, this documentary-style drama is almost guaranteed a niche audience. But moviegoers willing to expand their horizons might discover a humanist character study that transcends the restrictions of its milieu.
That environment is Brooklyn’s Borough Park, where a voluminous community of Hasidic Jews keeps ancient traditions — and a dying language — alive. One of the few Yiddish-language films shot in America, if not the only one I’ve encountered in my time as a critic, Menashe is foremost a triumph of authenticity. Director Joshua Z. Weinstein, a documentarian, immersed himself in this singular environment. He filmed Menashe quietly and secretly, with the aid of a translator, observing the customs — the morning ablutions, the daily worship — with ethnographic sensitivity
The story emerged from a preproduction interview with Menashe Lustig, a recently widowed Orthodox actor from Borough Park whose backstory and daily travails helped inspire the script. The screen version of Menashe is, to put it charitably, a mess.
Mourning the recent loss of his wife, with whom he shared a loveless arranged marriage, he wants nothing more than to regain custody of their young son Rieven (Ruben Nidorski) who, on the rabbi’s orders, has been forced to live with his more stable, and decidedly stricter, uncle Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus). The situation will persist until Menashe finds a new wife, which, according to his Orthodox neighbors, should be as simple as buying a new car battery. The rabbi, out of pity, permits Menashe custody of Rieven for the week leading to his late wife’s memorial, and it’s enough time to observe his parental and ethical failings.
Menashe’s life is a series of frustrations and mishaps. He arrives late for everything, and he drinks too much. He works a menial job at a local grocery, but he’s always in debt, his economic decisions unwise. His first breakfast for Rieven, served out of negligence and desperation, is cake and soda. His parental wisdom only spirals downhill from here.
Menashe is Lustig’s first screen appearance, and his natural talent for understatement is matched only by his emotional nudity. Like a child actor who’s placed in front of a lens for the first time, Lustig’s lack of camera awareness is the greatest gift to his director.
This is all the more remarkable considering Weinstein’s invasive approach, his camera clinging to his characters’ every movement with a mosquito’s persistence. In blurring the narrative and formal distinctions between fiction and nonfiction filmmaking, Weinstein adheres to Jean-Luc Godard’s classic assertion that, “If you want to make a documentary you should automatically go to the fiction, and if you want to nourish your fiction you have to come back to reality.”
Aggressive art-house auteurs like the Dardenne Brothers and Claire Denis know this too, and though Menashe echoes their style, it does not approach their intensity. There’s much at stake in this man’s attempt to right his own ship in troubled waters, but the accompanying urgency isn’t really there. And Weinstein occasionally settles on leaden symbolism, with a baby chick, raised in Menashe’s shoebox apartment, unnecessarily standing in for his failing responsibilities. For all its estimable attributes, the movie can feel embalmed.
Its singularity, however, is without reproach. Menashe is a document, if imperfect around the edges, of an endangered species, filmed with open-eyed appreciation of its protected habitat. In his elegant opening shot, Weinstein plants his camera on a Brooklyn street as Orthodox Jews traverse through the melting pot, drifting in and out of focus. Finally Menashe appears, and the camera fixes on his shambling gait, tracking right to follow him — a face in the crowd, one story among many.
MENASHE. Director: Joshua Z. Weinstein; Cast: Menashe Lustig, Ruben Nidorski, Yoel Weisshaus, Meyer Schwartz; Distributor: A24; in Yiddish with English subtitles; Opens: Friday at Movies of Lake Worth, Movies of Delray, Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton, the Tower Theater in Miami, and O Cinema Miami Beach