Directed by Joshua Z. Weinstein
In Joshua Z. Weinstein’s Yiddish-language drama, “Menashe”, we follow the title character, a Hasidic Jewish widower who, defying the Orthodox Jewish practices of his Brooklyn’s massive community, struggles to regain the custody of his 10-year-old son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski). The plot, conjointly written by Weinstein, Musa Syeed and Alex Lipschultz, is anything but bland, embroidering a painful reality about this particular religious group, which defends that a widower must remarry in order to properly raise his children. Also, it comes with the attractive peculiarity of having been loosely based on the life of Menashe Lustig, the debutant actor and protagonist of the film.
Manashe deals with this cultural/religious problem and with the fact that his life is a total mess. In addition to dislike his job as a grocery store clerk, he always gets late wherever he goes and never dresses accordingly, which provokes embarrassment in his unsympathetic brother-in-law Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus), the one with Rieven’s custody by the order of the Rabbi (Meyer Schwartz). Furthermore, the tolerant yet reckless Manashe is severely indebted, a situation that doesn't refrain him from occasionally spending some money on drinks when in the company of friends. The question persists: he loves his son, but is he a good example for him? Despite all these setbacks, he shows to be more considerate of people than several other men that carry the epithets of righteous and virtuous, like his obnoxious manager.
Now, freed from the ties of an unhappy marriage, it may come as no surprise that Menashe refuses to elope out of love again, despite the pressures he has been subjected to. He is ready to fight for his son, whom he appoints as the only consolation in life. And to prove that, he adventures himself in cooking for the memorial dinner of his late wife. This way, he contemplates the possibility of earning Eizik’s respect by showing him he can assume responsibilities without a woman beside him.
The film, besides rich in unfamiliar Hasidic traditional customs and religious practices, evinces a ripe storytelling whose incremental emotional appeal is bolstered by the crisp compositions from Weinstein himself and Yoni Brook, as directors of photography. Additionally, the characters ring true and their behaviors clearly draw strong reactions in whoever comes across with their ways. In my case, moved by Menashe's sad case, I nurtured a special sympathy for an imperfect man who was trying so hard to be better and to do the right thing.
Weinstein’s ability to notch up the dramatic side of the story without bringing manipulative tricks into play is praiseworthy. His work serves up a tart platter that gives you food for thought.