Shot almost entirely in Yiddish on the streets of Brooklyn, Menashe is a lovely story of faith, redemption and self-esteem.
Menashe (played by Menashe Lustig, the first-time actor on whose life the film is loosely based) is a hapless worker in a kosher grocery, always dropping things and being hassled by his boss. But he’s also in a state of grief over the death of his wife and the subsequent loss of his young son, Rievel.
The Ruv, the chief rabbi of this tight-knit Hassidic community, says the Torah commands a child must be brought up in a home with a mother and with “nice dishes.” So the boy has been sent to live with Menashe’s pious, sanctimonious brother in law.
What gives the film its dramatic structure amid director Josh Weinstein’s documentary-like observations is the ticking-clock deadline of a week’s respite the Ruv has granted Menashe to prove he can look after the boy and organise a decent memorial dinner for his late wife.
The boy and father bond sweetly over time and we see Menashe’s big heart swell with fatherly love – he gives the boy a “chickeleh” to look after and takes him to prayers sessions. And a drinking session, which is raucous fun, but gets him in trouble. As does the gefilte fish incident of the next day, when Menashe’s bad driving leaves a delivery in ruins all over the pavement.
The film is often funny, as things in Yiddish tend naturally to be, but it’s also clammy, claustrophobic and depressed, a heavy delight, the way a good latke sits in your stomach after. But it’s remarkably intimate and detailed as a portrait of both a world and of a man, a film that gets to the nub of what it is to believe so hard in a God and rules that you’re rendered so painfully human. And Menashe is wonderful in all his sweaty desperation and rosy determination.