The effect of religious belief in conflict with emotional needs is delicately explored in “Menashe,” a film mostly in Yiddish and directed by Joshua Z. Weinstein from a screenplay that he penned with Alex Lipschultz and Musa Syeed. Despite the cast being non-professional, or perhaps because of it, the performances are life-like and often moving.
The story is set in the Hasidic community in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn. Menashe, played by Menashe Lustig, is a widower with a young son, Rieven, enacted by Ruben Niborski. The Hasidic religious doctrine described in the film demands that a child be raised in a home with both a mother and father, and a rabbinical ruling is that until Menashe finds a new wife, Rieven must live in the marital household of his uncle.
However, Menashe is allowed to have his son for a visit before he is taken away. Menashe, who works in a grocery market, has a deep love for the boy, who is equally attached to his father, and the scenes of them together are gently portrayed with aching poignancy. When you strip aside the religious dogma, it seems a crime to separate them. Although overweight and sometimes bumbling, Menashe is clearly a devoted father with the ability to raise the boy with love and dedication in the absence of a wife and mother.
How you view the film may depend in part on your attitude toward the religious dictates. I find the removal of Menashe that is ordered extremely cruel and a blemish on the faith that Menashe follows. But the strength of the film is that it deals with the situation candidly, is well-acted all around and creates the atmosphere in which the characters exist within life as depicted in the Hasidic community. Beyond the story encompassed, I would have liked to have seen how Menashe’s quest for a wife would turn out, although admittedly the movie ends where it artistically should. An A24 release. Reviewed July 28, 2017.