Menashe is documentary turned first feature filmmaker Joshua Z. Weinstein's meditation on the insular Jewish Hasidic community in Brooklyn. We rarely get to get much of a peek as to what Hasidic people are really like so Weinstein's portrait of a beleaguered denizen of that community is most welcome.
Weinstein has based his story on the real-life machinations of his lead actor, Menashe Lustig, who never saw a movie until this film was shown at the Sundance Film Festival. Menashe lost his wife in real life so that's the starting point here-the conflict is an immediate one, as Talmudic Law has decreed that he is not allowed to take care of his 7 year old son, Rieven (played by the sensational child actor, Ruben Niborski), unless he finds a new wife.
Rieven has been placed with Menashe's brother-in-law, the stern Eizik (very convincingly played by Yoel Weisshaus) who looks down on Menashe as he believes he has no self-respect. Indeed, one film critic has likened Menashe to a Jewish "Marty," perpetually fixated in an earlier period of adolescent development. He is a bit of a "schmiel," with his portly appearance and refusal to dress up in the traditional Hasidic garb of hat and coat. What's more he's always broke, toiling in a dead-end job at a neighborhood grocery store run by his critical and demanding Hasidic boss (the brother-in-law, in contrast, is well-off real estate investor).
We soon learn why Menashe is in no hurry to get married again-simply put, he was always arguing with his first wife which made his life a living hell. He gets fixed up by a matchmaker but his date turns out to be as critical as his boss and brother-in-law. His only recourse is to beg the "Ruv" (his rabbi) to allow him to raise his son on his own. The Ruv won't hear of that arrangement and only gives Menashe one week to find a new partner or the boy must be returned to the brother-in-law.
It becomes clear that Menashe truly loves his son but his parenting skills are questionable-at one point he becomes a bit intoxicated during some after-dinner drinking with friends in the home, with the son ending up calling the uncle to pick him up. Later his son changes his mind and decides to stay with Menashe for the time being.
Menashe is determined to prove to his brother-in-law as well as the Rabbi that he's not as hopeless as he's perceived and insists on hosting the luncheon after the memorial service for his wife. But things go awry after he comes back home with his guests only to find his apartment filled with smoke after leaving the oven on in an attempt to bake his next-door neighbor's kugel recipe on his own. This is after he ruins about a $1,000 worth of fish while foolishly leaving the back door of a van open while driving, while on the job.
Menashe ends on the right note. SPOILERS AHEAD. It's as simple as his self-realization that if he wants to get his son back, he'll have to find a wife. So he puts on the traditional hat and coat and is ready to make himself presentable for a potential date.
What's remarkable is that the entire film is in Yiddish and the director doesn't speak a word of it (translators were used on set). Menashe is a simple story with some very keen observations about the Hasidic world. Director Weinstein nicely manages to humanize his characters spelling out both the internal and external conflicts of such a man as Menashe, who is saddled with important life decisions following the death of his spouse.