Yiddish Film: Menashe (2017)

There are a lot of posts I do where I feel like am a duplicating the efforts of other. As an example, there is a fairly comprehensive book on Yiddish film, "Bridge of Light" by Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman. There is probably some value in me writing about, say, "Mamele," in that criticism always benefits from a plurality of voices, but aside from my own eccentric take on the subject I don't think I can contribute any new information not provided by Dr. Hoberman.

But Hoberman wrote his book in 1995, so there has been 22 years of new Yiddish film since then, and they have not been written about comprehensively. And every so often I get to tackle a new film relatively early, such as "Menashe," an independent film I viewed at the Minneapolis St. Paul Film Festival; it has not yet gone into wide release.

In some ways, I feel like I got into this one too early. The film is set in a Hasidic community in Brooklyn, and is largely made up of Hasidic and ex-Hasidic actors. It was scripted by director Joshua Z. Weinstein, along with Alex Lipschultz and Musa Syeed, none of whom, to the best of my knowledge, have extensive experience with the Haredi experience (in fact, Syeed is Muslim.)

But director Weinstein has a background in documentary filmmaking, and it sounds as though the cast (especially including star Menashe Lustig, whose biography this movie borrows from) contributed to the eventual film. Presumably this brought a needed authenticity to the story, with the cast and star acting as a refernce and providing checks and balances to how they are represented. But, again, the film is not yet in wide release, and probably will not generally be seen by Hasids, who tend to avoid secular films. I have some connections in the ex-Hasid world, and will be curious to see what they think.

From the outside, the film seems unusually nuanced. Firstly, the plot: The movie tells of a widowed Hasidic man and his troubled relationship with him community and his son. Menashe, played by Lustig, is an eccentric by Hasidic standards, particularly in his refusal to remarry. He seems to be wavering between extremism and liberalism, but mostly seems to be struggling both with poverty and immaturity.

Menashe is a shlemiel -- he's called that by his brother-in-law. Usually this word suggests someone who is comically unlucky or inept, but "Menashe" is not a comedy, and so the main character's experiences are more often frustrating or humiliating than humorous. Especially thorny: His son has been taken away from him until he remarries.

At first, this seems like an unusually cruel communal convention. Menashe deeply loves his son, and it visibly tortures him to be separated. (It should be noted that Lustig's performance in this film is superlative; the whole cast is superb.) But the film also hints that this rule is specifically being enforced because Menashe is too immature to properly care for his child; he can't even properly tend for a pet chicken he has purchased.

It can be tough to watch. There is a line in the movie "Amelie" that describes a character as not liking to see a parent humiliated in front of their child, and sometimes this seems to be the entirety of "Menashe." Additionally, the title character reveals the source of his ambivalence about marriage, and it becomes obvious that he's deep in the throes of what is called "survivor guilt." His guilt about his wife's death, and his relationship beforehand, may be the source of his irresponsibility and occasional hostility toward his community, which has neither the skills nor the language to address his experience.

The film allows both flashes of compassion and cruelty -- the same community leader that slips Menashe extra money and praises his terrible cooking is, in another scene, shown refusing a girl the opportunity to go to college. We just hear her in the background, and hear that her heart is broken.

The film represents the extent to which Hasidic life is circumscribed by ritual -- we see Menashe praying at night before he goes to sleep and washing his hands as soon as his wakes. It's a balancing act, as, if the film approached the subject as a documentary might, it would be possible to get lost in the rituals -- the thrice-daily prayers; the complicated rules around what can and cannot be done on shabbos; the dense, insular language of piety. The Hasidic world in not merely closed because some speak Yiddish, or because some live in religious enclaves, or because it has a handful of particular rules.

No, it is a denser world than that, and the film carefully threads the needle as to showing the particulars of that world while opening it up enough for viewers to connect with Menashe, his grief, and his struggles to reconnect with his son. As an outsider, I feel the filmmakers did a fine job with this, but, as I said, I do not yet know what insiders (or, at least, former insiders) think.