We live in a world where, daily, the human race is becoming more homogenised. Some may say it's the inevitable outcome of globalisation, yet I see it more as a loss of individuality. This can be seen most prevalently in small societies outside the mainstream, who struggle to hold onto a particular way of life. The Hasidic community are an ultra-orthodox Jewish community who are also extremely private, as they both try to keep the modern world at bay whilst holding steadfast in their beliefs. The fact that 'Menashe' takes a glimpse inside this community is a rare opportunity, made all the more meaningful by the importance it places on authenticity.
Menashe is a well-meaning yet hapless grocery clerk living in New York whose wife passed away around a year ago. His rabbi insists that he needs to get married again, or he’ll be unfit to raise his son Rieven (Ruben Niborski) on his own. Clearly still mourning the loss of his wife, and struggling to keep his life together, he fights to keep his son close whilst still abiding by his religion’s strict rules.
This is a fascinating film for so many reasons - for one, it’s almost entirely in Yiddish, a language not seen in cinema for many decades. Director and co-writer Joshua Z Weinstein (who, by the way, states on his Twitter profile: “no relation”), while Jewish himself yet not Hasidic, worked hard to form a relationship to gain access into to this world. But what’s most fascinating is that this film sits on the border between fiction and reality - Menashe is being played by Menashe Lustig, an actual grocery clerk whose wife did die, and yes, whose son was sadly removed from his home. It makes the performance very real and adds to its documentary-like quality, with Menashe and the bulk of the cast not professional actors - in fact, many had never even seen a film in their lives. To further increase the naturalism, many scenes were shot on long lenses from a block away to keep the action as real as possible.
The work between Menashe and his on-screen son is definitely the highlight of this film, and the amount of raw heart that actor Menashe puts into this role is wonderful.
While its authenticity is genuinely fascinating, it does also end up being the film’s weak point. We often end up dwelling on certain scenes for longer than necessary, and the decision to cast only genuinely ultra-orthodox performers - from a religion known to be very dubious of outside media - means that not all of the performances are stellar. You also can't help but cringe at come concepts which are misaligned with current society - like the idea that women should stay at home to cook, clean and take care of the house, and even some rabbis teaching that they shouldn't drive a car (and in the film, one woman agrees, saying it's unnatural).
The work between Menashe and his on-screen son is definitely the highlight of this film, and the amount of raw heart that actor Menashe puts into this role is wonderful. Struggling to keep his son in his life and being respectful of his traditional values is a tough balance, particularly for a man who seems incomplete without his wife. Seeing Hasidism through his eyes gives us new perspective on the religion and the people, and witnessing this closed-off community in possibly the most credible way ever captured in cinema is a valuable experience.