As the hard luck Jewish widower in the film named in his honor, Menashe Lustig delivers the kind of magnetic, natural performance rarely seen in cinema — and there’s a good reason for the sensation he inspires.
Like his costars, Lustig is a non-actor, one of many in the cast who’ve never seen a movie, and under the guidance of Joshua Z. Weinstein — a documentarian by trade in his own uncharted territory, both in directing a narrative film and one in foreign-to-him Yiddish — they achieve a dramatized realism that’s downright magical.
Almost a Job figure, Menashe must contend with Hebrew law dictating that his preteen son Rieven (Ruben Niborski) cannot live with him until he remarries and reestablishes a proper household. In the meantime, the boy stays with his frustratingly strict uncle (Yoel Weisshaus), who’s never respected Maneshe and continues to belittle him whenever possible.
Foremost a character study, there’s nothing flashy about Menashe's filmmaking, but no distracting amateurish qualities, either. Weinstein makes excellent use of Brooklyn’s Borough Park and its inhabitants, illuminating the seen but largely unknown world of Hasidic Jews and the unusual obstacles they face.
From washing one’s hands in a plastic toy-like pail before rising from bed to choosing from paintings of important religious figures, small details appear gigantic to outsiders and indeed carry significant consequences for the generally no-fuss characters.
But enlightening as these components are, the cultural divide they represent occasionally keeps viewers at a distance, unable to relate to the conflict at hand. The effort involved in going with the flow, however, is a worthwhile one and major emotional payoffs await the faithful.
Grade: B-plus. Rated PG. Now playing at the Fine Arts Theatre