Self-improvement is hard, and it’s nigh impossible in a time of profound grief. For Menashe (Menashe Lustig), however, there’s no other option for him than to improve, and improve quickly. Menashe’s wife has passed away, and in his hyper-traditional Orthodox Jewish community in Borough Park, Brooklyn, this means that his son Rieven (Ruben Niborski) must live with a married family member until Menashe can get his life in order and be re-wed within the faith. One of the local rabbi advises Menashe that “all beginnings are hard,” but this is of hollow comfort to a man regularly struggling to make ends meet.
Menashe works hard at a corner grocery, but it’s hardly the kind of job that will sway those skeptical about his future prospects, and his boss gets upset at his supposedly lackadaisical approach to work. In reply to his excuses around his reluctance to remarry so quickly, he’s asked “besides marriage and kids, what else is there?” His late wife’s brother Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus) regards him with a mixture of pity and scorn, convinced that his nephew’s father may never become the man the young boy requires. His son could be ejected from the congregation’s school if Menashe doesn’t get his life in order; as it is, Menashe’s always a little bit disheveled and a few minutes late, which affects Rieven in turn. As Joshua Z. Weinstein’s film illustrates often, Menashe is a good soul, but one hardly built for the rigors of his particular world.
Yet he strives to improve, as a man who truly loves his child always will. In its earliest moments, Menashe leaves the cinematically familiar streets of New York City to sidle into a rarely seen (by non-residents, anyway) corner of the city. Weinstein, a documentarian by trade, takes a similarly fly-on-the-wall approach to his feature debut, immersing himself in the quiet moments and daily rituals of the community. Menashe is a man of devout faith, but nothing matters more to him than Rieven, which is at once a sign of his utter commitment to fatherhood and a fatal flaw in a congregation rooted in old-world traditions. Where to a secular audience Menashe may read as a well-meaning (if occasionally misguided) father doing his best, to his peers within the film he’s a perpetual screwup who runs the risk of embarrassing his child and his religion alike, regardless of his good intentions.
Delivered entirely in Yiddish, outside of one moving encounter between Menashe and two of the stock workers in his store, Menashe offers an affectingly intimate glance into a world largely unknown to those outside of it, one where faith is omnipresent over every facet of daily life and the troubled society outside is no concern of the neighborhood’s residents. Weinstein and co-cinematographer Yoni Brook follow Menashe (and Rieven by his side, frequently) with a curious but detached eye, observing his daily rounds in their simplicity even as the deck continues to stack against him. He’s insistent that his wife’s memorial dinner take place at his own home, even if his modest studio apartment is hardly the most appropriate space. A shipment of food for said dinner falls from the back of his truck, to his dismay. And all the while, he strains to keep Rieven close, terrified of the possibility that he could find himself truly alone in the world.
Menashe may be a film of understated storytelling and plot, but its pleasures lie primarily in the wonderfully observational approach that Weinstein takes to his protagonist, in a story based at least partially on Lustig’s own experiences as a widower in the Orthodoxy. His performance is endlessly magnetic, at turns playful and rife with sorrow. When he goes to drink and sing and forget his woes for a while, the façade of a high-functioning man drops for a moment, replaced by the unabashed grief of a man suddenly robbed of his entire life. Weinstein often fixates on Lustig’s face, and his expressive eyes alone carry many of the film’s key scenes. When Rieven recites a funeral rite during the memorial, the shot lingers on Lustig, as the full weight of her passing truly and finally sinks in. He’s gentle and beaten and desperate and kind all at once, and even if he might never truly belong, he wants to be a better man. The man he knows he can be, and the man Rieven needs.
There are no grand revelations to be found in Menashe, but its interpretation of piety is all the more resonant for how honest it ends up feeling. Menashe won’t leave the congregation, and there’s a reasonable chance that he may never fully resemble the stern, thoughtful men around him. But there is love in his heart, and as he insists, “I’m trying so hard to improve.” As many of us know, improvement comes only through struggle, and rarely in the ways that we seek to achieve. But in its way, Menashe puts forth a more sincere version of what faith can give to the lives of those willing to seek it. It can show a person a path to goodness, and encourage them to pursue it, no matter how doggedly.