IFFB Film Review: ‘Menashe’ provides an intriguing glimpse into an ultra-orthodox Hasidic community
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If there’s anything the general public learned about the current state of the film industry last year, it’s that one should never take their eyes off of A24. The distributor and/or production company behind such films as Moonlight, The Witch, Swiss Army Man, and Green Room pulled off one of the greatest coups in Hollywood history with their win with the first of those films at the Oscars this year. They most definitely cemented their reputation as one of the few companies releasing new work these days that, hit or miss, you just have to see.
One of their big acquisitions at Sundance this year, the Yiddish-language film Menashe, screened last night at Independent Film Festival Boston to a nearly sold-out audience. They were there for the potential promise of a modern, iconic take on orthodox Judaism, much like, as some journalists claimed this past Sundance, Fiddler on the Roof. To be fair, director Joshua Z. Weinstein didn’t ask for any of these comparisons to beloved works of musical theater and cinema, and has instead fashioned himself a Dardenne brothers-styled drama about a Hasidic father and his son. It’s alright.
Menashe tells the story of its namesake, a fictionalized version of lead actor Menashe Lustig, over the course of about a week in his life in Brooklyn. He’s a ne’er-do-well who works at a grocery store stocking shelves and ringing up the large families that come through his doors — an encounter with a woman with her eight children begins the film, and though it works significantly better in hindsight, it’s kind of a drab opening. Menashe has a child of his own, a son named Rievian, that he doesn’t get to see much- you see, Menashe’s wife, Leah, passed away before the events of the film, and under the law, his son must live in a stable two-parent household (his uncle and Menashe’s brother-in-law Eizak and his family) until his father can remarry. But Menashe doesn’t see any reason for this — he’s happy enough as he is, and he just wants his son back in his life. With the one year anniversary of his wife’s passing, Menashe decides he wants to hold a memorial for her, and his son is allowed to stay with him for the week up until he holds the service. And, of course, things go pretty haywire for the father and son.
To be frank, it’s a lot less compelling than it sounds, despite the cast’s best efforts (many of whom were amateurs from the neighborhood they filmed in). Weinstein often conflates realism with plodding, miserably slow pacing, and the film feels significantly longer than its 90 minutes because of it. Some of his commitments to realism are admirable. For one, the lack of non-diegetic sound for much of the runtime works in its favor and gives each space visited in the film its own distinctive flavor, from the muffled Mexican pop coming out of the speakers in the back of the grocery shop, to the sound of the garbage truck that arrives right outside of Menashe’s apartment to wake him up each morning, and his choices there are lovely. But the script just won’t let go of the same three vignettes — Menashe and son do something kind of cute, Menashe fucks up at work, and Menashe gets yelled at by his brother-in-law for being a shitty dad — that it just wears on one’s patience. There’s also a surprising inertia to the character development in the film, as each character ends the film in pretty much exactly the same place they started, unchanged and pretty much whole.
But then again, that might not be the point. Weinstein has a background in documentary filmmaking (this, his first honest-to-god feature, is the first time he’s worked in narrative) and it shows, mainly in the handheld cinematography and the constant steadicam usage. It’s put to good use. The greatest asset of Menashe is its setting, which provides a wholly unique glimpse into lives most of us just don’t have any insight into, and at times it feels like Weinstein goes out of his way to show how shitty or how great it is to be orthodox (“Women can’t go to college or drive! Boo! There’s a strong sense of community and a wonderful support network! Yay!”, ad infinitum), even though it really doesn’t need such overt observation in order to work. It’s frequently immersive but never showy, though at some points the film wants for a little more flourish from behind the camera and isn’t able to find it. However, the final shot is an excellent sleight-of-hand that alters everything that comes before it, and ultimately renders a lot of the valid complaints about its structure and arcs pointless. It’s just not enough to make up for the plodding pacing and the redundancy of its script, though Lustig does his absolute best to try and avert that, with his deeply soulful performance.