There have been several recent films that have offered a glimpse into the Charedi world, such as Rama Burshtein’s Fill the Void, Ushpizin or the more recent documentary, One of Us. But none has been as compelling and sensitively drawn as this charming, tender drama, one of the first to be performed in Yiddish in nearly 70 years.
Set in Brooklyn’s strictly Orthodox Borough Park neighbourhood, it follows kind, hapless, widowed grocery store worker, Menashe (Menashe Lustig) in his struggle to parent his young son.Tradition prohibits Menashe from raising Rieven (Ruben Niborski) alone so, until he remarries, Rieven lives with his uncle and family. Menashe begs his rabbi for an exception to be made and the rabbi concedes, granting Menashe permission to care for Rieven a week before his wife’s memorial, giving him a chance to prove himself worthy of the responsibility.
The film’s strength primarily lies in director Joshua Z Weinstein’s authentic and non-judgmental portrayal of this closed and rigid society.
Weinstein’s background is in documentaries — this is his first feature — and it shows in both his successful rooting of the film on location, using a largely non-professional cast, as well as in his unsentimental but empathetic telling of a real-life story that is loosely based on Lustig’s own.
Menashe is a captivating character. He is a bit of a childlike misfit, who seems to fall short in every challenge that presents itself to him, however hard he tries. To his boss, he is an irritant — often late and constantly short of money. Menashe points out to his brother-in-law that he is not “an outsider here” but there are times when he struggles to conform, whether in his dress code or, more profoundly, in his stubborn refusal to remarry. As well as being foolish, he is funny and warm and his love for his son is undisputed.
Underpinning the story is the deeply affecting relationship between father and son and Lustig and Niborski excel in their respective roles. Menashe’s parenting skills may, at times, be questionable — for example, he lacks adequate food in the house — but overall, their bond and the ease with which they communicate only makes their separation all the more painful.
There is nothing preachy or clichéd about how the community is presented. The only scene with a woman, a date that has been arranged by a matchmaker, gives further insight into the traditions and roles within it. “Besides marriage and kids, what else is there?” she asks Menashe.
Menashe is gentle humoured in parts but also achingly sad.
Its Yiddishkeit enriches and deepens the universality of the tale it tells so convincingly and with compassion.
Menashe (U) is released today