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Telling a seemingly straightforward story with modest resources, Menashe is most fascinating as an ethnographic excursion. For many of us, the tight-knit Hasidic communities cocooned within certain neighborhoods around the world are mysterious and essentially impenetrable. Director Joshua Z Weinstein has set his tale of a widower, Menashe, who longs to take custody of his son back from his brother-in-law, in one of them – Borough Park, in Brooklyn – and cast actual Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews in all of the roles, having them speak in Yiddish.
This is where modesty gives way to wild ambition. The talent pool from which Weinstein was casting had, almost to a person, never seen a movie. They lived in communities devoid of radio, let alone TV, cinema, smartphones or the internet. Let alone getting performances out of them, Weinstein had to explain to them the nature of movies, and get them to perform for his at great personal risk; as Weinstein says in his notes, “These individuals may be intimidated to leave their homes, fired from their jobs, and even lose custody of their children.”
How in the world he pulled it off is anyone’s guess, but in doing so, he has crafted a small tale of beauty, sadness and undeniable fascination. Watching Menashe (played superbly by Menashe Lustig, whose real story inspired that of the film) go about his daily life within his community is intriguing enough; the challenges the plot hurls at him are moving but, for those of us who don’t live in Hasidic communities, almost incidental. In a way, the film is a kind of documentary hybrid; we’re seeing a story, but what we’re really watching is the milieu, which has never been depicted on film before with this veracity.