‘Menashe’ quietly brings powerful narrative to cinema

In a world full of entertainment predicated on expansiveness, sometimes a film that reminds audiences of the potential of small, self-contained and introspective stories can be a welcome change of pace. Such is the product delivered by Menashe, a film that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Jan. 2017, saw its U.S. release in July and now has found its way to Williamstown for a seven-day run at Images Cinema, ending tonight.

The film, directed by Joshua Z. Weinstein, stars Menashe Lustig as the title character and Ruben Niborski as Rieven, his young son. Set in Borough Park, a Hasidic Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, the plot centers on Menashe, who is struggling to keep custody of Rieven after the death of his wife. All the while, his ultra-Orthodox religious community, led by Meyer Schwartz as the Rabbi, demands that Rieven be raised in a two-parent household by Menashe’s brother-in-law Eizik, played by Yoel Weisshauss.

The tension between the tragic and stressful circumstances of Menashe’s life and the rigid doctrines of his conservative religious structure forms the thematic through-line of the film.

Every new complication further highlights his struggle to adapt his imperfections and misfortunes to a strict set of rules that are inextricable from a spirituality that is deeply important to him. There are no true villains of the piece; Menashe is in conflict with himself as much as with Eizik. Eizik’s antagonism is not due to his personal expression of faith but rather to the manifestation of broader social structures that co-opt religion to justify power imbalances. Classism permeates Eizik’s dismissal of Menashe as an incapable caregiver due to his low-wage employment in the service sector.

Similarly, the fact that Menashe cannot be a father as well as the post-mortems of his relationship with his wife are merely a finely codified pillar of virulent misogyny. Not coincidentally, the lack of women as prominent characters is one of the film’s demonstrable weaknesses, but the film confronts this issue openly enough that it becomes a part of the storytelling as much as the filmmaking.

Making matters worse, Menashe finds just as much conflict outside his religious community, as the stress of single parenthood and tenuous custody, as well as a spate of infinite bad luck, puts him in poor standing in a job he cannot afford to lose. Compounding matters further, Rieven’s childhood is palpably on display throughout, with moments of joy that are heartstring-pulling in their earnestness and balanced by heartbreaking scenes of pre-adolescent frustration.

That Rieven exhibits such vibrancy when he interacts with his father and his culture makes his moments of pain all the more painful, especially since the child’s uninhibited love for his father is put under constant stress by the impositions of his community. The strain leaves the father-son bond utterly flawed as well, as neither can really understand the pain the other experiences due to wildly different contexts for the same struggle.

The film is entirely in Yiddish with English subtitles, save for one emotional powerhouse of a scene in which Menashe converses in English with his Spanish-speaking Latinx co-workers about his history with his late wife. This is a poignant exchange that simultaneously brightens the world Menashe inhabits, if only briefly, and underscores the messiness of the inner conflict that is dominating his world.

The film is a brisk 80 minutes, but there is a deliberateness to its pacing that leaves time for each emotional note to sink in and the day-to-day struggles of its characters to come to life. The on-location filming in busy New York, N.Y., constantly reminds the audience that what might seem like a foreign film to them is in fact a slice of life in the modern United States. It features the complexities of life for one of this country’s least represented demographics, the unapologetic immersion in Hasidic culture and the deeply humanizing exploration of the lives of Jewish protagonists.

Well-made, well-told and powerfully resonant, Menashe quietly stakes its claim as one of the most affecting stories to hit the screens this year.

‘Menashe’, a poignant film that tells a simple story of a man trying to gain custody of his son, touches the hearts of audience members. Photo courtesy of the Hollywood Reporter.