Friday, August 18, 2017

Joshua Z. Weinstein's MENASHE: Inside Brooklyn's Hasidic community, undercover

Likely, for non-Jewish viewers at least, to set Judaism back maybe 200 years, MENASHE -- the first full-length narrative film from Joshua Z. Weinstein (below, who directed the much better "Taxi Garage" episode from the documentary True New York) proves a very well-acted piece of utter nonsense. Other reviewers have suggested keeping an open mind regarding the film, but I would suggest a sieve or colander instead. TrustMovies admits he has little interest in or affection for the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community, but he has certainly enjoyed and found worthwhile other films concerning this subject (A Price Above Rubies is one of these).

Menashe, however, is so thoroughly misjudged in terms of its plotting and especially its title character "hero," whose stupidity is such a complete turn-off  -- he quite literally does everything wrong -- that only the simple-minded could care much about him or what happens to him. This is not due to the actor, newcomer Menashe Lustig, shown above and below, who plays the title role (and quite well), but to the writer/ director's ham-fisted handling of it all. Really Mr. Weinstein, how did this poor schlub mange to even reach adulthood intact -- let alone marry, have a child and find any kind of permanent employment? I find it odd that critics would refuse to accept this sort of manipulative deck-stacking in even a silly rom-com -- but here, it's OK?

Well not by me. Menashe, both the man and the movie, seem to do just about everything to undercut themselves and any possible success that either might have. We can take a little of this, even a medium amount along the way. But when every last event smacks of stupidity and failure (culminating in a smoke-filled apartment that could have been avoided so easily and more helpfully for all concerned), red flags have arisen to the point of practically blocking out all else we see on-screen.

This is too bad because the remaining actors here are also excellent, in particular the boy, Reuben Niborski (above, right), who plays Menashe's son, and Mr. Weinstein has managed a couple of other odd feats, as well. For one thing, he has shot his film with the actors speaking in Yiddish, a language the filmmaker admits to not speaking nor understanding and that is almost never used in films. (Not to worry, there are English subtitles aplenty.) He also made his movie on the sly, since the Hasidic community does not permit cinematography within its bounds. So any scenes that involve the community at large were photographed surreptitiously.

While one might debate the ethics (or lack of them) involved here, Weinstein's inter-weaving of these scenes with those that are more intimate and could be shot elsewhere is impressive and pretty seamless. And as he draws fine performance from his entire cast, there is much to be impressed with in Menashe.

Yet, as the movie continues on its dour and tiresome way, it becomes increasingly a heavy slough. And its would-be happy (or at least happier) ending also seems suspect. Now, after all this, our hero decides to "get with the program"? OK. If you say so.

Is Menashe fair to the Hasidic community? No more nor less so that other films that have offered this slice-of-life up for appraisal. It is a community closed off and unwelcoming except to those who tow the line. And since that line includes the likes of "Women should not be allowed to have a driver's license" (an opinion that is voiced by a female yet!), most audiences, I fear, will not be positively impressed.

Or maybe, unlike that famous old Levy's Rye Bread commercial, you really do have to be Jewish, after all.

Meanwhile, Menashe, which has already opened in major cities, hits South Florida today at the following venues: in Miami/Fort Lauderdale area at the AMC Aventura, Tower Cinema and O Cinema Miami Beach; in the Boca Raton, Delray Beach, Lake Worth areas at the Regal Shadowood, Living Room Theater, Cinemark Palace, and the Movies of Delray and Lake Worth. Elsewhere across the USA, click here to find a theater near you.

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