The film is an original and insightful take on orthodoxy and faithA24

It is notoriously difficult to make a film about the Chassidic community. Publicity and transparency has never been the way of Ultra-Orthodox Jews and yet in Menashe, Joshua Weinstein manages to create something quite unique. The film opens with the lens focussing on Menashe, a widower who works at the local kosher supermarket, growing agitated with the rigidity and complexity of the society around him.

“It is sensitive to not sensationalise the conservative lifestyles of its subjects”

Weinstein is careful here not to allow the story to fall into cliché. Menashe is a pious Chassidish man, evidenced by long passages documenting the character’s devotional prayer; yet he is a father who is unable to teach his son the clarity necessary for a serious Chassidic lifestyle, struggling to grasp it himself. These themes of lucidity and sobriety pervade the film as father and son learn Talmud together in Synagogue: they act like two boys, giggling, surrounded by a world of serious men. Long lens shots continually drift in and out of focus as we understand that, for Menashe, the lifestyle is not as black-and-white as the clothes he wears.

The risk with a film of this nature is that it will fall either to the side of inauthenticity or anthropology: often becoming a viewing deck for audiences to simply stare at groups dramatically different to themselves. Menashe’s greatness is in its power to drop the viewer into a world entirely ‘other’ than them and yet portray experiences that are remarkably similar to their own. It is sensitive to not sensationalise the conservative lifestyles of its subjects.

Trailer for MenasheYOUTUBE

Questions of gender roles and sexuality are raised quietly and gently: an abhorrence to women drivers is mentioned, but by a widow on a date with the protagonist. With this subtlety, Weinstein is able to clear away large divisions between the audience and the Chassidic world and instead focus on more subtle differences: the reliance on authority and the centrality of honour are both revealed as we spend longer immersed in the community.

A basic plot is perhaps the film’s only weakness, narrating the days leading up to the memorial service of Menashe’s late wife. He is seen battling for custody of his son who has been sent to live with his brother in law, it deemed ‘inappropriate’ to raise a child without a female role-model in the house. This simple story, however, perhaps allows for a greater focus on building a vivid portrait of the Jews of Borough Park.


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Scenes of cooking mishaps and interactions with Mexican colleagues provide light relief, but it is in the moments of religious celebration that the film best captures the Chassidic community. A shot of the Lag BaOmer festival, with the rabbi throwing a flame onto the bonfire, beautifully depicts the contrast between the silent Chassid’s life and the roar released at meetings of the collective conscience.

As Menashe fades into the crowd in the last moment, we look differently at the men in traditional garb: seeing the individuals, not only their uniform black jackets and hats. The film could never lead to a complete understanding of a group so different to other people, but it succeeds in giving an insight into a community so often entirely inaccessible. Less a piece of narrative, more a social breakthrough, Menashe offers a message of unity and similarity, showing that issues of grief and responsibility pervade all societies, and that a life of order and discipline does not have to discount moments of pure ecstasy and religious inspiration

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