Set in Brooklyn's strict Hasidic Jewish community and spoken entirely in Yiddish, Menashe is a downbeat and low-key but enthralling work. Menashe (Lustig) is a financially strapped widower under pressure: his rabbi (Schwartz) urges him to find a new wife, sanctimonious brother-in-law Eizik (Weisshaus) doesn't believe Menashe has the maturity to properly raise his son (Niborski), and his boss is fed up with Menashe's screw ups in the local shop…
Focussed entirely on Menashe and his point of view, Joshua Z. Weinstein's film has a very insular feel. This is a world dominated by tradition, order and doing things 'the right way', even if the right way brings anxiety and sorrow. Every scene is packed with detail, working hard to pull the audience into this world, and yet the details offered are easily digestible, giving one the perfect understanding of what Menashe's actions, or inactions as the case may be, will mean.
Women are sidelined, there to cook and clean and run the household (other than the disastrous date Menashe goes on, the other woman on show is only seen in the kitchen two rooms away). Menashe is almost a rebel in this setting, refusing to wear his hat or coat, and arguing with the rabbi, who calls the shots. "Must the rabbis meddle in everything?" he sighs at one point. He also doesn't raise his son as others see fit, taking him out of school so he can spend time with him; he believes allowing a child to be a child and not burden them with books and prayer and responsibilities.
It's slow moving and moves from scenario to scenario in its own time but there is an overriding arc that seeps tension into the seemingly inactive scenes. The memorial for Menashe's late wife is imminent and tradition allows the ceremony to take place in the home of the widow. However, despite Menashe’s promise he can pull it off, Eizik insists on hosting the memorial in his house – a major insult in this world. A showdown between Menashe and Eizik in the post.
It might sound stiff and unemotional but the heart of the story – Menashe's relationship with his son, and the truth of his real feelings for his late mother – is heart-warming and dealt with subtlety; the scenes involving the chick Menashe has rescued are sweet, the little bird's innocence reflecting that of father and son.