Monday 18 June 2018

On demand: "Menashe"

Menashe - which slipped out theatrically in the dark days of December, and is now available to stream - is a 21st century indie that plays and feels like a late Eighties/early Nineties indie, and not just because it unfolds on the streets of New York, hotbed of the scene as it once was. Director Joshua Z. Weinstein (no relation to you-know-who) uses these 82 minutes to draw us right inside a world - or, more specifically yet, a world inside a world: that of the Yiddish-speaking Hasidic Jewish community stationed within the wider multiculturalism of Brooklyn's Borough Park neighbourhood. The title character (Menashe Lustig, a local resident retreading actual lived experience) is a heavy-set, balding widower who wears the beard but not the hat or the coat, and can more often be seen carrying a cellphone than the Torah; he works as a cashier in a cramped minimart, where his non-canonical views rub up against those of his more Orthodox fellow travellers, and his shelf-stacking Latino co-workers refer to him, with obvious affection, as "Gordito", the fat one.

In general, though, this is a fellow so unprepossessing that even his own cousin fails to recognise him when he calls on the phone at one point; overlooked (despite his girth) and undervalued, Menashe is - as characterised here - something like a kosher version of Ernest Borgnine's Marty, or the urban equivalent of Pruitt Taylor Vince's lovelorn short order cook in 1995's Heavy. Perhaps the one thing he has going for him is the fact he is the father to a son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski), on whom he plainly dotes - although he has to do this only sporadically and from afar, the lad having been raised (as tradition dictates) by a married brother-in-law after the kid's mother passed. Sloppy, slovenly, barely at ease with the world going on around him, Menashe is not the most obvious of father figures - we watch him huffing and puffing to drop the kid off, late, at school one morning - but the thought presents itself: what if this boy was the catalyst his father needs to pull himself together?

Put it like that, and Weinstein's film risks sounding like the varyingly sickly product emitted by Touchstone Pictures throughout the Nineties, a sort of One Mensch and a Baby. (It does, unexpectedly, boast an executive producer credit for no less a figure than Home Alone director Chris Columbus.) Yet its protagonist comes to shape up in directions that prove far more haphazard - more truthful - than any simplistic crowdpleaser would allow for. Its big themes (big religious themes, we should note: duty, responsibility, charity) are revealed not by schematic plotting and writing, but glimpsed through a broadly naturalistic framework: Weinstein, who comes to fiction filmmaking having trained in documentary, fashions resonant, telltale setpieces out of acts as everyday as father and son hanging a picture to a wall - a sign that our protagonist's house (and mindset) is returning to order - and eventually succeeds in getting us utterly caught up in the preparations for a memorial meal. (Truly, you will never in your lifetime have been so invested in the fate of a kugel.)

The results form a small miracle, a faith movie that exists without the usual deafening fanfares and judgements from on high; a film that takes its characters' beliefs seriously, but also seeks to set them against the real world of traffic, beggars and poky one-room apartments, the better to spot where there might be room to grow and improve, or simply let a little God-given fresh air in. Yoni Brook's spontaneous cinematography, alert to both the rituals and the space and movement around them, aids Weinstein's cause no end, as does a sparse score (by Aaron Martin and Dag Rosenqvist) that helps shape and focus these quietly attentive images. The performers occupying them, non-professionals cast to represent points along the scale of orthodoxy, seem both entirely of this world and increasingly recognisable. It was a masterstroke, for one, to have the whole thing revolve around Lustig, a galumphing, bearlike presence, yet a very moving one in the final reel when, eyes lowered, he tries to articulate deep-seated feelings he's spent the whole movie gulping down. You just hope Weinstein doesn't get marked down as a niche filmmaker: here's someone with much to say himself on the subjects of modernity and tradition, working from a wellspring of curiosity and understanding we might well need going forwards.

Menashe is available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI. 

No comments:

Post a Comment