Menashe (2017)

“Besides marriage and kids, what else is there?”

The intimate, delightful, and at times painfully tragic Menashe is a film that comes to you as a blindsiding surprise, welcoming and inviting us into its highly orthodox Jewish streets of Brooklyn with a universal story told through a particular worldview. This is pivotal to its success, not only taking the time to dig around and fumble deep within the pockets of a community behind closed doors, but to upturn them, allowing us a glimpse into the change and the cultural mores spilling from the inner linings. Menashe offers a valuable lesson to viewers because it’s a standard father-son redemption story so influenced by the environment from which it is born. By doing so, outsiders will come to understand their own journey on an even deeper human level as they come to understand humans unlike themselves. That’s what Ebert called cinema’s greatest gift – empathy.

I’m not a gambler but I’d still hedge my bets that you’ve met a man like the titular Menashe (Menashe Lustig). An affable non-comformist by nature, goofy and sweet, persistent and misguided in his seemingly perpetual state of misfortune. Always lumbering about dripping with sweat. His life as kosher market employee is in a spiraling trial and error stage. As a recently widowed man, Menashe is forced to confront his reluctant place within his Jewish community, battling against his brother-in-law Eizik and the Rabbi for custody of his son Rieven (Ruben Niborski). He’s reminded that the Talmud holds three things responsible for man’s happiness: a nice wife, a nice house, and nice dishes. In that particular order? I can’t say. By those strict societal standards and over the course of this film, Menashe should be coined as a schlimazel unsuited for fatherhood. It’s Kramer Vs. Kramer not against a jilted ex, but facing a devoted congregation upholding a regime of faith-based practices.

For those already rooted within the Yiddish speaking circle, I imagine watching Menashe will either appeal to their experience as the outsider protagonist or will reaffirm the proper menschs of the Jewish community. Where does that leave neophytes like myself? I’d argue in the shoes of the son Rieven. He studies and rebels and watches his hapless father climb a rung only to fall down two. Rieven doesn’t know everything about his surroundings; neither do we, but we’re beyond curious, and so we explore its delicate intricacies. In that regard, Menashe – a contemporary and specific take on naturalistic cinema – stands grounded in faith yet malleable in the mind. It’s so keenly observant, so rigid in its themes and pliable in its plot, so affectionate and decent.

The most interesting aspect of Menashe is how we first encounter the lead and how we reluctantly watch him depart. On the sidewalks of New York, he eventually enters the frame during a swaying side to side shot. Joshua Z Weinstein and his DP aren’t afraid for a passerby to cloud the camera or to go out of focus; this is real life captured in a narrative format and the approach is that of one of those a crinkle-eyed double takes for a recognizable face you haven’t seen in years. Then we see Menashe – played by Lustig as a man reliving his own life – and he stands out from the crowd. The film begins with this Yiddish speaking version of the lovable loser/bachelor Marty faced with a difficult Hobson’s Choice. And by the end, we see the protagonist in a different light. One that’s uplifting in its selfless sentimentality yet tragically defeatist in its reluctant conformity. Menashe offers distinct insight through all of its padded ups and downs.

“It will never be the same, yet life must go on.”

Rating: 4 out of 5

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