' ' Cinema Romantico: Menashe

Monday, August 21, 2017


Set in the Hasidic enclave of Borough Park in Brooklyn, “Menashe” begins with myriad Jewish men, dressed in their black overcoats, sidelocks descending beneath their black hats, passing to and fro in a street level shot. So easily do these men of the faith mix, you do not necessarily know who you are supposed to be looking for, yet you seize on him instantly, the titular Menashe (Menashe Lustig), so emphatically does he stick out. He sticks out because he lacks the coat and hat, opting for just a kippah and tzitzit, and because of his roly-poly gait. And as he emerges from the crowd, the camera finally moves, tracking with Menashe, effectively emblemizing how he is at once among his people but also not quite like them. Joshua Z. Weinstein’s debut feature narrative film might take us inside a community so insular that the majority of the film is spoken in Yiddish, but he still engenders universality, something like a fish out of water concurrently in familiar water, because who among us hasn’t experienced a time where we’ve felt out of place?

Menashe is recently widowed. As such, his son Rieven (Ruben Niborski) has been sent to live with his uncle Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus) on account of their strict orthodoxy, decreeing that a child cannot live in a motherless home. This does not sit well with Menashe, a man whose faith is unmistakable, introduced at his supermarket job wondering why a head of lettuce is not suitably kosher, but also often questionable, which is why he more or less drags Rieven home with him in spite of orthodoxy. His Rabbi (Meyer Schwartz), however, grants permission for Rieven to remain with his father through his mother’s wake, a critical event which Menashe assumes the responsibility of hosting as a means to prove his worth. This is meant to lend urgency by way of a timeline, though, frankly, moment to moment is urgency enough for “Menashe.”

Weinstein, who comes from documentaries, films much of the movie in tight handheld close-ups, reinforcing not merely the sequestered Hasidic community but the smallness of Menashe’s own world, his living space in particular, a tiny apartment with a tiny kitchen and a tiny stove and a tiny bed. This lack of space lends a constant overcrowded sensation, underlining how there is too much for Menashe to do and remember, seen in the everyday tasks that he continually mucks up, like dad trying to get son to school. In moments like these, you can almost see a secular remake with Kevin James in the lead and bumbling hijinks as the point. But Menashe’s failures evoke less sad sack comedy than well-meaning desperation. And so even as his paternal love comes across genuine, you can’t help but empathize with Eizik’s pique exasperation and wonder if Rieven really would be better off under his Uncle’s roof, a wonderful polarity defining the entire film.

Though Weinstein passes no judgement on the community’s customs, he also takes care not to leave anything out, like a moment when Menashe goes next door to ask for a recipe and lets his gaze linger, sadly, not romantically, on a young pregnant woman who is demonstrably reticent and acutely sad, a swift illumination of how this small world considers women. Indeed, “Menashe’s” most blinding revelation is one plainly mentioned by Menashe as he shares drinks in the supermarket’s back room with a couple Hispanic co-workers. The scene’s context is like a momentary portal into another world, a world, you sense, in which the main character might like to stay, even as Lustig’s wearily steadfast demeanor and his Menashe’s reluctant acceptance that his revelation is merely the way it is makes clear that is not an option. Faith isn’t easy.

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