Madeleine Davies

A schlimazel single father observed: Review of ‘Menashe’

In Uncategorized on May 27, 2018 at 4:42 pm

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LONE fathers are not absent from film. I immediately think of Sam Baldwin, played by Tom Hanks, in Sleepless in Seattle, describing to his son how his mother could peel an apple in one go. Single Dads can be anxious (Finding Nemo), heroic (To Kill a Mockingbird), or neglectful (My Girl). They might be in crisis (Signs) or, perhaps improbably, ready to date Claudia Schiffer (Love Actually).

None of them would have been familiar to Menashe Lustig when his wife died, suddenly, in 2008. A Hasidic Jew, the first time he set foot in a cinema was to see himself ambling into view on the streets of Borough Park, his home in New York, at last year’s Sundance Festival. Menashe is his story (he estimates that 95% of the plot draws on his own experiences) – that of a young widower whose only child is taken to be raised by another family.

It is a beautiful film shot with a kind eye. Praised for its respectful exploration of a world alien to its audience, it offers glimpses of a life deliberately set apart from modern, secular culture. But it also exists as a bridge to the universal, capturing tenderly the way a home feels both empty and prone to chaos, after the loss of a mother. Menashe’s resistance to “meddlers” will be familiar to others who have sought to ward off those who, well-meaning or otherwise, seek to bring order.

It’s also an important meditation on wisdom and tradition. These meddlers are not sanctioned by the State, but members of Menashe’s religious community, drawing on sacred texts. It is the “Rav” (Rabbi) who rules that his son, Rieven, should be raised in a two-parent home, with his Uncle. The Talmud says that three things bring a man peace, he reminds Menashe: “a nice wife, a nice house, and nice dishes”. Menashe lives in a small, spare apartment, with sparsely populated shelves and a mattress on the floor for his son to sleep on. For breakfast he offers coke and some left-over cake that must be scoffed down in seconds in order to make the school run. There is no sign, not a single photograph, of the woman who must once have lived there.

The Rav’s decision initially seems cruel, but as we watch Menashe go about his daily routine, over-sleeping, ambushed by a landlord seeking arrears, drinking too much, we might hear echoes of debates that more commonly take place between social workers and families: is this a fit parent? The camera becomes a witness – for or against we’re not sure – documenting Menashe’s efforts to prove himself. It could be regarded as another prying eye – another meddler – particularly given that the film was essentially filmed in secret. There are certain shots – Menashe gobbling a sandwich alone in a convenience store after a disastrous date, his listless face in a van window after another gaffe at work – that feel intensely private.

But there is a kindness to the film that reminded me of certain Bible verses about God’s eye on us – the God who knows every hair on our head. “You keep track of all my sorrows,” reads Psalm 56. “You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.” Despite the close-knit nature of the community, Menashe cuts a lonely figure. He’s often caught in the reflection of windows, or pictured in doorways, peering into the contented, organised lives of others. He’s not even the first “Menashe” that comes to the mind of his cousin, on receiving his phone call. It is only the camera that is intimately present, there to capture moments of triumph among failure and ineptitude.

The most beautiful scene shows father and son on a hill overlooking the water at dusk. Rieven’s kippah has been gently caught and returned to its proper place after it flies off while he swings on a tree branch. The duo are set apart from the other families, but together.  It carries a sad echo, later, when it is pages of kitchen paper that Menashe is pressing to the back of his son’s head, after a fall in the kitchen. But the love that this Dad has for his son is never in doubt, and there is something precious about the playful innocence of their time together.

Menashe is a prankster and, in some ways, still a child himself. He’s heavy-footed, stolid, careworn, but has the unlined face and rosy cheeks of a boy. At the synagogue, he steers Rieven away from learning about the correct behaviour in a cemetery to passages about the animal qualities they are advised to emulate, encouraging him, despite the hushed atmosphere, to perfect impressions of a leopard, eagle, and lion. It’s not that he doesn’t take his faith seriously – in an early scene he worries that unwashed lettuce goes against the Rav’s instructions – but he is passing it on to his son as something alive, tangible. It is while washing a baby chick that he teaches him why a Jew must be clean outside. The discovery of the same chick, dead in its box, is another mark against his capacities.

This combination of playfulness and irresponsibility has been explored in other films about single fathers, most recently Captain Fantastic. They test our sympathies, occasionally pushing us to side with those demanding greater maturity of the Dad whose antics come with a risk. Menashe is a “schlimazel” (a consistently unlucky or accident-prone person), urged to “become a mensch” by his brother-in-law. It’s interesting that one of the departures from Lustig’s life is Menashe’s decision to fight for his son. “It was very hard for my family,” Lustig told IndieWire. “They were good people. They thought I was full of emotions and didn’t want me to destroy my son.”

In Menashe the camera often lands gently on face of the Rieven, frequently an onlooker over-looked by the adults around him. It watches him observe his father, capturing embarrassment, disappointment. It is perhaps here that the film’s sympathies lie. Occasionally, the camera is placed at his eye-line, as at the BaOmer bonfire, so that the black-hatted men dancing ecstatically around leaping flames are seen looming above.

Although the film celebrates the place of Jewish ritual in grief, it is in a storeroom with Hispanic colleagues, sharing bottles of drink, that Menashe finally articulates his feelings, and we learn how complex they are. And it’s notable that what’s offered in return is not secular wisdom, but the words of Jesu Cristo: “If you forgive, he’ll forgive you. So your son is going to be alright. When he gets older he will understand.” It’s a nice reminder that perhaps the most authentic inter-faith encounters are not being carried out in seminar rooms, but on the streets. Menashe asks questions about the strictures imposed by religion, but also respects the comfort, the “fold” it offers, even if the threat of expulsion hangs in the air.

At the end of the film, the missing person, Rievat’s mother comes into view. “Her soul is in heaven,” the Rav pronounces. “She prays before the creator that you may raise Rieven well. All should say of your son ‘praised be his father’.” And to Rieven: “You had a very dear mother. She’ll always protect you.” There is discipline in this community, but there is also assurance. As the film ends, we see Menashe descend into the waters of the mikvah, faintly obscured by a hazy green light. It is another private, sacred moment, respectfully documented. As when gently bathing the chick with his son, he is demonstrating care – towards himself, finally – and making an outward sign of inward purification, preparing for a return to responsibility. We leave him walking the streets of Borough Park, wearing the coat and hat loved by both his wife and his son.

“All beginning are hard,” observes the Rav. “It will never be the same, yet life must go on.”

Menashe, directed by Joshua Z Weinstein was distributed by A24

 

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