Walking around Borough Park must feel, to some, like time travel. Residents of the southwest Brooklyn neighborhood are predominantly Orthodox Jews, whose 18th-century traditions still govern everything from custody disputes to attire. In “Menashe,” filmmaker Joshua Z Weinstein turns his camera on this community, using nonactors to create a tender portrait of family. In addition to the fascinating everyday details of these characters’ lives, at the film’s moving core is a loving father who is struggling to negotiate the gap between community expectations and selfdetermination.
The title character (played by real-life grocer Menashe Lustig) is a gregarious, oafish type who can’t seem to catch a break. After his wife, Leah, died, his young son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski), has gone to live with Leah’s brother Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus), in keeping with tradition. The reasoning? According to Hasidic culture, a home is incomplete without a woman to raise children and tidy the household. The arrangement will continue until Menashe finds a second wife.
He’s in no rush. Although the extent of his grief is unclear, Menashe’s peers increasingly see him as a loser. In a fit of frustration, Menashe announces that he wants to raise Rieven on his own. When the rabbi sanctions Menashe’s decision, albeit temporarily, Menashe aims to prove himself by hosting Leah’s memorial service.
Weinstein took his time to ingratiate himself with a community that does not welcome outsiders. Before filming, he gained their trust by putting on a yarmulke and spending time in apartments and at parties and religious gatherings. Lustig stood out, — he’s naturally charismatic and goofy — and the film is based on his real-life experience as a widower.
“Menashe” mixes such cinema verite techniques as natural light and handheld camerawork with human drama that sidesteps the expected. Weinstein got his start as a camera operator on documentaries, and that experience is an asset here: There are many scenes that capture meaning in the routine, whether it’s how Menashe gets ready for bed or how he participates in community prayer. At the same time, the film doesn’t burrow into the tenets of Jewish dogma. Tradition and ritual are what interest Weinstein, as well as the understated suggestion that Menashe might be more modern — and secular — than his peers.
Although one character discusses the pervasive depravity of gentiles, Weinstein and his co-screenwriters Alex Lipschultz and Musa Syeed are careful not to judge either community. Some of their choices are bizarre: In one gently comical scene, Menashe goes through the motions of a date, barely hiding his disinterest when his companion announces her belief that women shouldn’t be allowed to drive.
By focusing on the details of his characters’ lives, Weinstein finds common ground on both sides of the religious divide. Menashe’s boss is a pain, and so is his brother-in-law. Menashe worries about his son, and he has too much pride to ask for help. These are universal problems, filmed without melodrama. Many characters keep their feelings buried, engaging in the ubiquitous tribal gossip to mask what they really think. The Yiddish language barrier that most viewers will face also adds some mystery to the drama, because there are stretches of dialogue where the characters seem to be saying way more than the subtitles convey.
In a recent interview with NPR’s Robert Siegel, Weinstein said that Lustig had never been inside a movie theater until the film’s Sundance premiere. The actor’s separation from contemporary Western culture — pop culture in particular — lends his character a unique presence. In scene after scene, “Menashe” strikes complex notes without telegraphing how the audience should feel.
There’s an odd freedom to this kind of storytelling, even if the community’s gender inequality grows more glaring as the movie goes on. (There are no women at Leah’s memorial.) Critiquing this community, however, would undermine Weinstein’s greater purpose. Menashe has little desire to leave the Orthodox world, or to explain what it means to him. But if you were to chat with him over a beer, I suspect, you might find an easygoing rapport that would surprise you.
PG. At Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema and Angelika Film Center Mosaic. Contains mature thematic material. In Yiddish with subtitles. 81 minutes.