It’s not often we get films about the Hasidic Jewish community, so in that respect, it’s nice to see something like Menashe making the rounds. Spoken almost entirely in Yiddish, the film follows the life of the titular widow, who cannot raise his son unless he remarries due to the strict Talmudic laws. In the meantime, young Rieven must live with his uncle Eizik, who is contemptuous of his brother-in-law’s slovenly ways and seeming lack of responsibility. Menashe wants to prove himself a fit enough father, and works hard to make ends meet (including having to put up with his demanding manager at the local grocery store where he works). But every time, no matter his effort, it never seems enough. Reluctant to find a new wife, but determined to keep Rieven at his side, the beleaguered Menashe toughs it out alone in a community that doesn’t seem to have a place for him.
What I appreciated about Menashe was its sense of authenticity. The coldness that envelopes you as an outcast is a universal feeling, but when paired with the exacting conservatism of the Hasidic community, it becomes unbearably frosty. Yet Joshua Z. Weinstein never lets Menashe succumb to the frost. In several scenes, the actor is surrounded by echoes of warmth, whether it be a cheerful gathering or the light of a candle flame. Even if the film is not exactly a happy one, it doesn’t descend to pure misery, either—and it could have easily done so. Weinstein’s recreations of Hasidic traditions are also worth seeing for those unfamiliar with them, like myself. They have their quiet place in the narrative, and lend it a bit of peace.
My main criticism is that, by virtue of Hasidic teaching, whatever conflict the film wishes to probe is rendered inert at the outset. To keep Rieven with him, Menashe has to find a new wife. But since the film isn’t about him in search of one, and since we learn early on that Menashe does not have the character to simply rebel against authority, we know what the ending will bring long before it comes. The film should settle for being a quiet portrait of a father-son relationship, but it spends a lot of time on Menashe pleading with Eizik for custody. It tries to instil some tension and a fleeting “what if?” scenario during these moments, perhaps to keep the stakes buoyed. Unfortunately, the outcome is the same every time, and we can always see it coming.
In spite of this, Menashe has a tenderness to it that is hard to decry, and because it’s shorter than your average film, it doesn’t have the time to go off the rails and become something it’s not. It may not be incredible, but as a character and cultural study, it has its moments.