thu 06/08/2020

Menashe review - Yiddish-language film with a heart of gold | reviews, news & interviews

Menashe review - Yiddish-language film with a heart of gold

Menashe review - Yiddish-language film with a heart of gold

Warm and vivid family drama set within the reclusive Orthodox Jewish community

Meyer Schwartz, Yoel Weisshaus, Ruben Nivorski and Menashe Lustig: a long way from 'Fiddler on the Roof'

On paper this film sounds so worthy: a widowed Orthodox Jewish father struggles to convince the Hassidic community elders that he can raise his young son alone after the death of his wife. But it’s the opposite of worthy on screen – Menashe is utterly absorbing, deeply charming, and very funny. It’s an impressive first narrative feature by documentarian Joshua Z Weinstein, who brings an assured intimacy to the screen from the outset. 

The film opens with a long-lens shot of Hassidic men walking on a city street; from their outfits and demeanour they could still be in pre-war Poland, but for the brick phones in their hands.The camera picks out one figure to follow, Menashe (Menashe Lustig), a flat-footed scruff in shirtsleeves who works in a kosher grocery store. His boss is pretty unscrupulous but Menashe’s a decent bloke who warns customers off dodgy goods and banters with his Colombian co-workers. Recently widowed, Menashe’s main concern is persuading the community elders that he is capable of looking after his young son Rieven (Ruben Nivorski, pictured below). Menashe doesn’t want to be married off hastily by a matchmaker, but that might be the only way to prevent Rieven being adopted by his disapproving and snobbish brother-in-law.

MenasheFilmed in Borough Park, an ultra-orthodox Jewish neighbourhood in Brooklyn, it’s to Weinstein and his producer Danny Finkleman’s enormous credit that they managed to win enough trust from the local Hasidic community to be allowed extensive access to the streets, restaurants and apartments of this closed world. Ultra-Orthodox leaders don’t allow devout followers to go to the cinema or have TV or the Internet at home; there is a great distrust of all modern media. Cast entirely from non-actors, the script was developed from Menashe Lustig’s own life story – he really is a widowed grocer with a young son – although it leaves out his sideline as a comedian who makes Youtube videos.

Menashe keeps messing up at work and in his family life. He's disorganised and scatty and while he wants to stay within his religious community he can’t accept all their rigid restrictions. He loves his son and is frustrated by his own inability to win him back to his tiny apartment and away from his wealthy relatives. Lustig plays the loveable schlemiel superbly and is well matched with characters from the neighbourhood, some of whom had apparently never seen a film, which must have made directing them challenging. Performed almost entirely in Yiddish, the dialogue was originally written in English by Weinstein and his co-writers Alex Lipschultz and Musa Syeed (surely the only time a Muslim has scripted a Yiddish film). One of the film's many charms is that it respects its audience’s intelligence; there’s no outsider character to act as mediator, and we’re simply immersed in Menashe’s world.

Weinstein has made a remarkable film which not only takes us inside a fascinating closed world without editorialising, but he's also given us a portrayal of a father and son’s bond which could stand alongside that neo-realist classic Bicycle Thieves. Beautifully shot by former photojournalist Yoni Brook, Menashe is enhanced by the subtle use of naturalistic sound and a sparse but highly effective original score. This is a small but perfect gem of a film. 


Overleaf: watch the trailer for Menashe

Lustig plays the loveable schlemiel superbly and is well matched with a cast of non-actors


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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