Several months ago, I started seeing promos for Menashe, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2017. I was really impressed. There have been only a few movies over the years which successfully depict the Hasidic world with nuance and depth and have gotten critical acclaim (Ushpizin, Fill The Void and The Wedding Plan). Menashe seemed to be on par with these films. I loved that the movie was all in Yiddish, was filmed in Borough Park, and used actual members of the Hasidic community. Even the short previews exuded an authenticity and charm. I was excited to be invited to its premiere in New York City last month and anxiously awaited seeing it.
The cinematography is beautiful, gritty, and artistic. The main character, Menashe, is a nebbish who seems to get everything wrong. He has lost custody of his only child – his son – since his wife’s passing as it’s apparently not considered proper in his Hasidic community for a single father to raise a child alone. This is something I had never heard of before. I didn’t realize at the time, but after the preview I found out that the movie is loosely based on the real Menashe’s life. I have been told that film director, Joshua Z. Weinstein, though not part of the community himself, worked hard to try to get this film right. Menashe spends the movie trying to get his son back and plan a memorial for his late wife. Being that he’s a nebbish, he is not terribly successful at anything he tries.
I spent the movie waiting for a payoff, waiting for a kernel of wisdom, a nugget of inspiration that would leave me with some appreciation of this world that is not mine. That moment never came and the one hopeful piece of information that the viewer holds onto for most of the movie turns out to be a lie. When the lie was revealed, I felt sucker punched. There were no redeeming qualities to this world.
Now, for the record, I didn’t go into the movie expecting to be swept away by Hasidus. The purpose of the film was not kiruv! I was expecting to see warts and warts there were. And honestly, the success of the aforementioned films: Ushpizin, Fill The Void and The Wedding Plan all showed shortcomings, which I believe made the inspiring parts more believable. While Menashe was a vast improvement over the “Law and Order” Hasidim, it still left me disappointed.
I have two thoughts on why the film failed for me. Firstly, the other films were written by Hasidim themselves. I believe that they were able to capture some of the beauty that attracted them to their lifestyle in the first place, and for the viewer it was a rewarding experience to see the beauty as the filmmakers saw it. Even though Weinstein worked hard to portray this community accurately, my sense is that there is nothing admirable he sees in it. And if he doesn’t see if for himself, how can he show it to us?
The second reason I believe the film failed is that because real life does not always make for good fiction. Some lives are just really difficult and unpleasant and there’s not much to do about it, but in the form of a movie, they’re too depressing. So if a filmmaker is going to use a real life story to make a movie, the story still needs to leave the viewer not feeling totally down in the dumps. There needs to be some fictional element added for the sake of good story telling so we get some sort of payoff by the end.
I am happy that non-Hasidic Jews are working harder to make authentic films about the Hasidic world, but for whoever does this next, I hope that he will work with someone who sees the beauty himself, so the audience will get a glimpse of it too.