Menashe (Menashe Lustig) lives in the Hasidic community of Borough Park, New York. His wife Lea passed away almost a year ago, separating Menashe from his son Rieven (Ruben Niborski) due to cultural tradition; the boy must be raised in a home with a mother and father. In the week leading up to his wife’s memorial dinner, Menashe is granted permission to live with his son and prove that he is the capable father he claims to be.
Menashe is a tremendous little film. It is an independent drama performed almost entirely in Yiddish, and shot on location in Borough Park with a cast of non-actors. Director and co-writer Joshua Z. Weinstein, who until this point has focused on documentary filmmaking, based the story on aspects of the life of his star Menashe Lustig. It is a wonderfully authentic film: rich in culture, small in scale, and perfectly observant of human behaviour. Paradoxically its use of Yiddish is both a tremendous creative asset and a near-guarantee that most of the people who would adore it will never even bother to see it. Too many viewers run a mile at the sight of a subtitle.
There is a universality to Menashe. While its Hasidic environment and culture gives it an enormous and distinctive atmosphere, its story and themes are common to anybody with family. Anyone with a child can relate to the struggle in raising one. Most people with a family will be able to recognise how some times your relatives can be impossible to please. While it seems that Menashe cannot cut a break, the truth is he is a terribly flawed person. He wants to be a responsible father and upstanding member of society, but he lacks the skill. He is by some measures a poor Hasidic Jew, failing to wear a hat and coat like his neighbours and refusing to take the hunt for a second wife seriously.
Menashe Lustig is superb as his namesake, pulling together all of the character’s faults, petty jealousies and quirks and assembling them into an immediately three-dimensional and believable person. More than that, he makes him enormously sympathetic despite his faults. As his son Rieven, Ruben Niborski gives the film a superb boost of energy: all awkward limbs and conflicted emotions. Yoel Weisshaus presents a wonderful contrast as Eizik: Menashe’s brother-in-law and Rieven’s uncle. He is effectively ‘the good Jew’ to contrast with Menashe’s failings. Punctual, honest, devout and successful, he is a constantly disappointed and interfering thorn in Menashe’s side. Rounding out the lead cast is Meyer Schwartz as the local Rabbi, a role he fulfils with both gravitas and wit. It is an altogether wonderful cast with which to spend 80 minutes.
Weinstein has assembled a minor masterpiece here. It is a rich and realistic character piece that leads you to immediately engage with its characters. It boats a beautifully subtle violin-based score Aaron Martin and Dag Rosenqvist. It refuses to tie itself up neatly: it’s a realistic story based on real people, and Weinstein simply tells it in a supremely effective fashion. Whatever your taste in cinema, I urge you to take the step and catch Menashe in cinemas while you can.
Menashe opens in select Australian cinemas on 8 February 2018.