Thursday, August 17, 2017

He fights to be a father

Menashe, a Yiddish-language film, tells the story of a widower whose relationship with his son is threatened.

Menashe, the main character in the movie of the same name, lives in Borough Park, Brooklyn. As a member of a Hassidic sect, Menashe tries to adhere to the letter of Jewish law.

Not a man of worldly ambition, Menashe earns his living working the cash register at a local grocery store. Menashe speaks mostly Yiddish and the subtitled movie about him -- directed by Joshua Z. Weinstein -- makes room for only a smattering of English.

Those unfamiliar with Hassidic life may find Menashe as foreign as if it were taking place in another country. We're in the US, but Menashe immerses us in a culturally isolated community made up only of Hassidic Jews.

That doesn't mean that Menashe's story fails to strike a few universal cords. A widower, Menashe has been told that can't keep his son Rieven (Ruben Niborski) unless he remarries. Menashe's rabbi (Meyer Schwarz) has ruled that every child must grow up in a two-parent household. The
complication: Menashe has no desire to submit to another arranged marriage.

As a result, Rieven lives with his stern uncle (Yoel Weisshaus), a man who's married, has his own family and views Menashe as incurably irresponsible.

Menashe Lustig, a bearish man whose story inspired Weinstein's screenplay, portrays the title character in a movie that has been cast with non-actors who appear to be deeply embedded in the world that Weinstein apparently had to film on the sly so that he did not run afoul of the Brooklyn-based community where the story takes place.

You'd think that our sympathies automatically would go to Menashe. But Weinstein makes it clear that Menashe doesn't really know how to raise a child -- even as he shows the father's love for the boy and the boy's love for his father.

As played by Niborksi, Rieven comes across as a smart kid who, at times, understands that his father might be in over his head.

The movie includes a wonderful scene in which Menashe shares beers with two Puerto Rican co-workers during a break from work. He also shares the story of his less-than-happy marriage. Honest and relaxed with these strangers, Menashe unburdens himself in English. His companions tell him that without a wife, he's free to do what he pleases, analysis that couldn't be further from Menashe's truth.

This lovely, human scene reminds us that there's life beyond Borough Park, even if Menashe and every other character in the film have no pressing desire to interact with it.

The first year anniversary of the death of Menashe's wife drives the story over the course of a single week. Despite his brother-in-law's objections, Menashe insists on holding the memorial service in his cramped apartment. He wants to prove to his brother-in-law, to the rabbi and to the community at large that he's capable. To the movie's credit, we're not convinced that Menashe is up to the task. He may not believe it, either.

Weinstein leaves it up to us to decide what to make of the lives he so richly evokes in a movie that qualifies -- on the basis of language alone -- as one of the year's more unusual offerings. It has been a long time since I've heard this much Yiddish, the language with which my grandparents were most comfortable and which my parents spoke when they didn't want either myself or my brother to know what they were talking about -- or when English simply couldn't match the richly sardonic capabilities of Yiddish.

Language aside, Weinstein's Menashe succeeds in doing what many good films do; it opens the door to a world most of us don't really know and allows us to meet the characters in it on their own terms. Nice work.

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