Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Mar 05, 2017 2:57 pm 
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A grieving Hasidic widower in Brooklyn

The setting is a very particular one, the Yiddish-speaking Hasidic community of Borough Park, Brooklyn. Mehashe (Menashe Lustig, playing a variation on his own life experiences) is a widower with a ten-year-old son named Rieven (Ruben Niborski). In the community, children are not supposed to be in the care of single men, so Rieven is living with Menashe's judgmental brother-in-law Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus). Another factor is that Menashe, who has a menial job at a kosher supermarket where the boss is as disapproving as Eizik, is impoverished, not a winner; Eizik sells real estate, and does well. Menashe very much wants to have Rieven with him. He does get Rieven for a while, but it's a tug of war. The fact is, Menashe seems a mess. He's urged to get a new wife as soon as possible, but he's disinclined, and this big sloppy man is no dreamboat.

There is a burlesque, comical aspect to this little tale. But it's also notable for its warmth and humanity. Essentially this is a story of love and loss. Documentary filmmaker Weinstein uses simple, no-nonsense methods,* and it seems uncertain where things are going for a while. But at the end, Menashe has gained some recognition - particularly from us, the viewers, and we realize that this is about grieving. Menashe is going through a process. He struggles to have the memorial service for his wife not at his brother-in-law's but at his humble abode, and, despite disasters, he succeeds. The event ends with the approval of the Rabbi (Meyer Schwartz)and the other men who come. When we see him standing tall walking down the street finally dressed in a proper Hasidic long coat and hat, no longer the sloppy shirt sleeves he's been in all through the film, we realize he is working through the grief and turning a corner toward self-possession and self-respect. He's becoming a mensch in his own eyes and acceptable material for a matchmaker, and we feel a lift.

Menashe is not only a culturally distinctive tale with documentary particularity but also a story with real slow-building emotional heft. Much is owed to the scenes of Menashe and Rieven together. Rieven is a lively boy, playful, unpredictable, unscholarly, a bit of a handful. He is happier with his father, but also wary when his father messes up, repeatedly. On the other hand Eizik is prissy and mean as well as judgmental. This film isn't simplistic, though. The Rabbi and Eizik come to recognize Menashe's emotional sincerity and turn out not to be as mean as they first appeared, as playing by the Hasiidic rule book made them look. Hasidic values are strict, but there is also warm-heartedness and joy.

This film shot among actual Hasidic people in Brooklyn, which is tricky, since the Hasidics don't even watch movies, let alone approve of acting in them. It had to be made somewhat on the sly. How Weinstein persuaded real Hasidic people to play all these roles is a bit of a mystery, but he spent several years making the film, and as a documentarian was familiar with ways of fitting in. This is one of those films where using non-professionals pays off. You could never make these people up, or recreate them with makeup.

One does't feel here the wholesale admiration of Jewish ultra orthodox life you get in Rama Burshtein's Fill the Void (NYFF 2012), but one's not getting a sense of tragic consequences as with the gay orthodox butchers in Haim Tabakman's bold and devastating Eyes Wide Open. When you read accounts like Lutser Twersky's Huffington Post article, "I Escaped Hasidic Judaism..." you wonder, and there are hints here, like a young woman complaining that she's being prevented from going to college. But, of course, every story need not directly critique the society it depicts. It's complicated.

Menashe, 79 mins., debuted at Sundance; also shown at Berlin and Cleveland, and screened for this review as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center-Museum of Modern Art 2017 series New Directors/New Films. It's Weinstein's debut as a feature director. An A24 release.

*L.A. Times article by Steven Zeitchik describes making of the film.

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