MENASHE, US, 2017. Starring Menashe Lustig, Yoel Falkowitz, Ruben Niborski, Meyer Schwartz, Ariel Vaysman, Yoel Weisshaus. Directed by Joshua Z.Weinstein. 89 minutes. Rated PG (Mild themes).
There is often a hesitation in being invited into a closed community, especially a religious community that has strict cultural traditions. This is the case with films about Orthodox Jews. A number of these films, often critical, come from Israel. However, this is a film from New York City, an Orthodox enclave – and, significantly for cultural awareness, spoken in Yiddish.
This rather brief film opens with a street scene, men and women walking, the background of shops and buildings, but, in the foreground, many of the men with their hats and religious locks. From them a middle-aged man, a touch heavy, a touch balding, hat and locks, emerges and the camera follows him. He is Menashe.
Menashe is a widower with a young son. However, with memories of unhappy aspects of his marriage, he is very cautious about the tradition that he should marry again, that a man cannot manage a household. This is a woman’s task. In the meantime, his very demanding brother-in-law has taken charge of his son. The two men are seen frequently clashing.
While the film shows many scenes of Menashe at work, his busy and critical boss, an accident with goods and a truck, there are also many scenes of Menashe at home with his son. It is an awkward relationship, with memories of the mother. The boy is not entirely at ease with his father.
The central episode of the film is a dinner in memory of his dead wife. The brother-in-law expects that he and his family will prepare the dinner. Menashe is determined that he will, even though he is not particularly good at cooking and has to borrow recipes from his neighbour (one of the very few women who appears in the film, along with the mother of many children shopping in a supermarket).
Religious men talk amongst themselves, quote the Talmud, Menashe joining in the scripture readings and prayers. However, they come to the dinner and, even though the cooking is not particularly good, the rabbi is complementary. And, Menashe’s young son sings his mother’s favourite song, giving some feeling to the dinner.
So, Menashe will assert himself, wants his son to stay with him and the son has to make his decision.
While so many of the interactions are common to human nature and universal, there is a continued challenge to an audience wanting to understand what seems to be a strange culture, sometimes oppressive traditions, always in the name of religion, and the listening to Yiddish making the characters and their crises even more distant.
Rialto Released February 8th
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.