By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)
I have always been interested in different cultures of the world and have learned much through cinema. Though I have viewed and reviewed several films about Jewish people, I cannot recall one that focusses on the Hasidic sect. A new independent film titled Menashe offers an insightful look at the culture in America and how one of its own struggles to meet the standards and fulfill the strict obligations that come with being a member of the community. Directed by Joshua Z. Weinstein, the film offers moderately amusing humor mixed with a bit of poignant drama and features solid performances from non-professional actors.
Menashe Lustig stars as the titular character, an amiable widower who can never get anything right and always seems to have the worst of luck. Within his Hasidic community in Brooklyn, New York, Menashe has a reputation of being a “schlimazel” (a person with bad luck) and to those who don’t respect him, they consider him to be an “unmensch,” or undesirable. After losing his wife to illness, Menashe has been without his son Rieven (Ruben Nidorski), in accordance with the recommendations of the community’s Rabbi (Meyer Schwartz). Both the Rabbi and Menashe’s in-laws feel that he is too irresponsible and unreliable as a parent and that it would be best that Rieven live with his uncle, aunt and grandmother. Lonely and missing his son dearly, Menashe attempts to earn everyone’s respect and win back custody of his son.
Written by Alex Lipschultz, Musa Syeed, and Joshua Z. Weinstein, Menashe does offer a fascinating glimpse of Hasidic life in America and a character study of its protagonist that is funny, piteous, and a little frustrating. Because Weinstein takes a cinema verite, documentary-style approach, the film plays very naturally and realistically which says quite a bit about his direction and the acting of the amateur cast. My only complaints regarding the movie have to do with the less dimensional ineptitude of the Menashe character which gets a tad ridiculous in one key moment. I also feel that Weinstein and his writers could have done much more with the Menashe character. The movie feels like an incomplete film and ends with me wanting more.
Still, I did manage to overall enjoy what it does have to offer and would strongly recommend it for viewing when it becomes available for rental, streaming platforms or on television. Joshua Z. Weinstein has already made a few documentary features, documentary shorts, some narrative shorts, but with Menashe, he proves that he has the skills to pull off a good feature film. Perhaps if this film gets just the right amount of attention and acclaim, audiences will get to see more great films from this talented filmmaker. If he can get some impressive performances from non-actors, I would love to see what he can do with professionals.