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Menashe

MENASHE

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Joshua Z Weinstein

Cast: Menashe Lustig, Ruben Niborski, Yoel Weisshaus, Meyer Schwartz

MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements)

Running Time: 1:22

Release Date: 7/28/17 (limited); 8/11/17 (wider)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 10, 2017

The question of the man's circumstances is mostly one of how much a person believes in luck. The eponymous protagonist of Menashe seems to be unlucky in everything. He has a tiring and tiresome job at a local grocery store. He can't meet a woman whom he likes. He's late for everything. His wife died about a year ago, and now, because the rules of his religious faith dictate that a child cannot live in a single-parent home, his son is living with the family of wife's brother.

Menashe's (Menashe Lustig) situation is tough. It's not helped by his faith, although he tries his hardest to be a devout Hasidic Jew—praying every night before bed, washing his hands first thing every morning, attending prayer services with the local rabbi whenever they're held. He tries, but nothing like that is helping to solve his problems. If it were only a matter of luck, one would think that such a superstitious notion could be corrected with some spiritually supernatural influence.

Such is not the case. No matter how much he prays, Menashe still is stuck in a dead-end job, lives in a small studio apartment, finds every date set up by a matchmaker to be a bore, and can only see his son if he finds the boy walking from school to his tutor. There's something more to his situation—something that he either can't or won't see.

The film, co-written and directed by Joshua Z Weinstein (his first narrative feature), is an examination of Menashe's life. It provides plenty of observations of the man's flaws, while offering no judgment of those flaws. His is a life lived in a specific community, namely the Hasidic Jewish community in Borough Park, Brooklyn, where the film was shot. In that regard, too, screenwriters Alex Lipschultz, Musa Syeed, and Weinstein show us the details of living in such a community without passing judgment, despite the repeated hints that there are consequences for those who do not fit the mold—such as Menashe—or who are seen as less deserving of certain privileges—mainly women, who, according to one of the area's rabbis, aren't allowed to drive and can only attend college with a father's unlikely blessing.

The critique of this religious tradition only comes in passing, although one could interpret Menashe's inability to fit in with his community as a symptom of the pressures that the rules of this community place on its members. As we learn late in the film, all of Menashe's problems seem to stem from familial obligation—both to his father's wishes, based in his tradition, and to the community's requirement that a man should start his own family as soon as possible. If he hadn't been matched with a wife from Israel—whom he had never met before then—at the age of 22, surely Menashe's life would have turned out differently. There's a more pertinent question, though: Would it have been a better life? From there, there's another pressing one: How can we define "a better life" in the first place?

To its credit, the film doesn't know, because knowing such things is impossible, especially within the context of a life lived in this community, among this group of devout people, and with the various rules about how a person should live, as well as the consequences for those who do not follow those rules. The film does know that Menashe has spent his life—from his marriage until now—pondering such things. He's as trapped by those questions as he is by the community itself.

The film's tension arises from the seeming impossibility of Menashe living a life that he believes is worthwhile. He wants to be a real father to his son Rieven (Ruben Nidorski), but without a wife, Menashe would be condemning Rieven to expulsion from school. He doesn't want to get married again, despite a line of women chosen by a matchmaker, so instead, he argues with his brother-in-law Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus), who has taken Rieven in as a member of his own family, about letting Rieven live with him. It's an impossible task, since Eizik might be as devoted to the rules as any man in the community and holds Menashe in some contempt for the way he treated Eizik's sister—especially in her dying days.

The local rabbi (played by Meter Schwartz) comes up with a compromise: Rieven will live with Menashe for a month, and after the memorial for the year anniversary of his mother's death, Rieven will return to Eizik's home, if Menashe hasn't made a suitable home for his son. Out of pride (perhaps a false sense of it), Menashe announces that he will hold the memorial in his tiny apartment.

What we learn is that Menashe only appears to be unlucky. He regularly oversleeps, which causes another problem once he has to bring Rieven to school every morning. He's so annoyed by his job that he doesn't do it well (There's an incident involving thousands of dollars' worth of fish that could have been avoided, if he had been attention). When he goes on one of those blind dates, he usually says the woman isn't "his type," instead of owning up to the fact that he is, at this point, done with the idea of marriage.

Weinstein takes his time in showing us what prevents Menashe from becoming, as his brother-in-law puts it, a mensch—someone who's worthy of respect. The film ultimately doesn't reconcile the fact that there are some issues with this community's idea of such a person, but that's partly because Menashe is, commendably, about the specifics of this particular man's problems. By the end, he hasn't figured it out yet, but as they say, it's at least a start.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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