Rating: 3 out 5 (good)
Director: Joshua Z Weinstein
Cast: Menashe Lustig, Yoel Falkowitz, Ruben Niborski, Meyer Schwartz, Yoel Weisshaus, Ariel Vaysman
Synopsis: Following the loss of his wife, Menashe (Menashe Lustig) is a man bearing the brunt of the world. Loathed by his family and belittled by his peers and his boss, Menahse struggles to find his place in New York’s Hasidic Jewish community. Menahse’s attempts to be with his son, who is kept at arm’s length by Menashe’s brother-in-law Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus), finds resistance in a community where being single is frowned upon.
How many different worlds walk alongside ours, invisibly existing until suddenly they materialise. Opening with a pan of everyday New York foot traffic, Menashe blends into the ordinary crowd until noticing his formal clothes belong to the 19th century. Menashe’s theme is hermetically contained in this opening shot. It is the flickering clash between Menashe and the crowd, a thread of ordinary problems amid a life starkly different from our own. Widowed and struggling to cope, Menashe suffers a dead end job beneath a vexing manager. Compared to the rigidity and stoicism of his peers and family, Menasche’s warmth is mistaken for foolishness, and only appreciated by his son Rieven (Ruben Niborski).
Entering into the Hasidic community both rivets and detracts. Having grown up orbiting around a nuclear family, I saw in Menashe the strengths of an actual community. Menashe is connected to something greater, a group bonded together by religion. Yet under those same strings I would certainly choke. Religion in Menasche’s community is a 24 hour procedure encroaching every facet of life and smothering any choice. Concepts within the Hasidic community were complete anathema to me, disconnecting me from it and Menasche. It is to the credit of the director and his two fellow writers, Alex Lipschultz and Musa Syeed, that they depicted the society so openly.
Despite my criticisms , the disparity between my world and Menashe jolts the film with an undercurrent of tension. From conversations at the local synagogue, Menashe’s world is cleaved by a thin divide between piety and apostasy, and Menashe subtly teeters between the two. Atop of this tension are glimmers where Menashe seems poised to break from his community. To see another human soul pitted against such odds and try to change their situation is Menashe’s power, connecting me to a man so unlike myself. Another powerful pull is the very real relationship between Menashe and his son Rieven. Both share love and loss together. Rieven like all sons do, begins to challenge his father, changing their dynamic and increasing Menashe’s woes.
Menashe’s small budget and the director’s past work in documentaries leads to a film which is visually solid but reflects its lack of funds. Bearing a mainly documentary style of wide outdoor shots and an intense focus on individuals when indoors. There are symbolic devices of brilliance in Menashe’s ponderous moments of silence. I felt a particular poignancy when Menashe, alone in the local baths, places his head below the water and sinks back into his community. It is the solid writing and excellent performances which hold Menashe together. Yoel Weisshaus as Menashe’s brother-in-law Eizek really plays up to his role as Menashe’s antagonist, beating him down no matter the circumstances. Menashe Lustig as Menashe has a gregarious warmth which pairs well with his son’s playfulness.
Menashe’s slow pace mixed with its entrancing religious score reflects the central character’s inner turmoil, but the film drags in its final act. It is an unfortunate flaw which made me wish for Menashe to end in the last 15 minutes, undercutting the story’s resonance.
What Menashe attests to is the power of story, to find those universal emotions transcending background and race. It is a maxim that A24, as a film company, clearly understands. Over the past year A24 has released films from A Ghost Story to The Florida Project which are different, which have pushed my tastes and ultimately changed what I expect from cinema.
By Saul Shimmin
For the trailer, see below: