Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 22 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 0; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1. Our star rating (1-5): 5
My child, keep your father’s commandment, and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.
I love films that immerse us in an unfamiliar land and culture, as Martin Scorsese did in Kundun, his intriguing film about the fourteenth Dalai Lama. In documentarian Joshua Weinstein’s first feature film, the land is seemingly familiar and much closer—Scorcese’s beloved New York City—but the culture is not. The story is set in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community that tries to stay as closed off as possible from the Gentile world. One way in which they manage to succeed at this is by everyone speaking Yiddish among themselves.
Our protagonist, the portly Menashe (Menashe Lustig), is somewhat of an outsider among outsiders because his wife died almost a year earlier, and he has resisted the many attempts of relatives and friends to hook him up with a new wife. He has a ten-year-old son named Rieven (Ruben Niborski), and Hasidic custom teaches that a wife must be present in the home for a father to properly raise a child. For the time being, at last, Menashe does not feel the need for a wife, and he resents being told by everyone that he does.
His rabbi has a say in every aspect of his followers’ lives. When Menashe petitions the Rabbi to allow his son to live with him, the Rabbi responds, “The Torah requires three things: a nice wife, a nice house, and nice dishes.” Thus, Rieven lives some of the time with his father, but most of the time his Uncle Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus), a well-to-do real estate broker who looks down on his brother as a hopeless failure. Menashe has failed to rise above their lower-class origin, working as an under-appreciated clerk at a grocery store. He goes out of his way to help customers, but his nasty boss scolds him for wasting so much time in his efforts. He is clumsy, his ineptness with physical things landing him in deep financial trouble midway through the film. There are times when Rieven becomes so upset with his father that he returns voluntarily to his stern Uncle’s household.
The big concern that drives the story if Menashe’s insistence that he host the annual memorial dinner for his wife rather than Eizik who is certain that his brother will screw things up as he has done so often. The main dish must be baked in the oven, and Menashe rejects someone’s kind offer to bake the main dish, so you can probably see what is going to happen, but he so badly wants to fit in and be allowed to be the sole custodian of his son that at one point he declares, “I’m not an outsider here!” Chief of the guests will be the rabbi, or “The Ruv” as he is called, and the result is a delightful moment of grace that will be pleasing to all viewers.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the October issue of Visual Parables.