A Brook­lyn tale of fa­ther, son and Jewish com­mu­nity

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - Showtime - Broward - - MOVIES - By Michael Phillips

“Menashe” marks the fea­ture de­but of doc­u­men­tary-trained di­rec­tor Joshua Z. We­in­stein, who shot his movie, par­tially un­der wraps, across a two-year pe­riod in the Ha­sidim com­mu­nity of Brook­lyn, N.Y.’s Bor­ough Park dis­trict.

The film is in Yid­dish and some English, with English sub­ti­tles. We­in­stein, a sec­u­lar Jew, used an in­ter­preter on set, work­ing with an ensem­ble largely made up of first­time ac­tors. The re­sult is an act of par­tial, ten­derly ob­served guer­rilla film­mak­ing. It works; it takes you some­where, qui­etly but evoca­tively, and it’s af­fect­ing with­out pulling at your heart­strings with both hands.

Es­sen­tial de­tails of “Menashe,” which We­in­stein wrote with Alex Lip­schultz and Musa Sy­eed, come from the life of the per­former cast in the lead­ing role, a won­der­ful, easy­go­ing bear of a man named Menashe Lustig. In real life, Lustig, part of the re­stric­tive New Square Ha­sidic en­clave in Brook­lyn, is a wid­ower with a son, now a teenager. Af­ter sev­eral years in Eng­land, where his late wife came from, Lustig re­turned to Brook­lyn. By his rabbi’s de­cree, he was re­quired to re­marry be­fore re­gain­ing cus­tody of his son. He has yet to do so.

From that sit­u­a­tion, a fic­tion­al­ized ac­count was born, tak­ing its name from the ac­tor at the cen­ter. We­in­stein opens his film with a busy Bor­ough Park side­walk, let­ting Menashe emerge from the crowd nat­u­rally, as the cam­era fol­lows him to the right. He works as a gro­cer. He’s de­vout but a bit of a mess, al­ways run­ning late, boxed MPAA rat­ing: PG (for the­matic el­e­ments) Run­ning time: 1:21 in by his own life.

The nar­ra­tive cov­ers a week, lead­ing up to Menashe’s late wife’s me­mo­rial, which Menashe is de­ter­mined to hold in his tiny apart­ment. Dur­ing that week, again by rab­bini­cal de­cree, fa­ther re­gains cus­tody of his son, Rieven (Ruben Ni­borski), as a sort of va­ca­tion from his new life with his pros­per­ous aunt and un­cle. The com­mu­nity is tightknit in the ex­treme; ev­ery­one knows ev­ery­one’s busi­ness.

The movie wouldn’t be much with­out the rap­port es­tab­lished by Lustig and Ni­borski, a mag­i­cally right duo. They em­bark on ev­ery­day di­ver­sions (get­ting ice cream; time spent at the kosher gro­cery, af­ter Rieven’s school day), but each mo­ment has an in­vis­i­ble ques­tion mark hang­ing over­head. Menashe is heart­bro­ken about los­ing cus­tody of his son; with­out un­due hec­tor­ing or fin­ger­wag­ging, di­rec­tor and co-writer We­in­stein won­ders, of­ten purely vis­ually, if this re­ally is the best sce­nario for all par­ties.

Some of the nar­ra­tive de­vel­op­ments and con­ver­sa­tional tan­gents feel con­trived, but “Menashe” has a rhythm (brisk but un­forced) that speaks well of We­in­stein’s fu­ture in nar­ra­tive sto­ry­telling. Lustig is a nat­u­ral per­former, and the comic short films he has posted on YouTube in­di­cate a broad slap­stick im­pulse we see only hints of in “Menashe.” We­in­stein steers Lustig away from overt per­for­mance, in fa­vor of covert emo­tion. It suits this world, and th­ese peo­ple. In their scenes to­gether, Lustig and the ef­fort­less Ni­borski rarely can be caught cap­i­tal-A Act­ing, when small-b be­hav­ior, in this con­text, is so much richer.

Small but mov­ing, “Menashe” has trav­eled well on the in­ter­na­tional film fes­ti­val cir­cuit. When it pre­miered at Sun­dance, Lustig was in at­ten­dance, and, he said, it was the first time he’d ever wit­nessed a screen­ing of any­thing in an ac­tual the­ater. Now that its lim­ited com­mer­cial run is un­der­way, I hope a few more peo­ple see it that way.


Menashe Lustig, left, plays a Jewish wid­ower who faces los­ing cus­tody of his son, played by Ruben Ni­borski.

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