Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Review: Menashe at Cinema No. 6

by Naeve Molho

On a recent trip to No.6 cinema in Portsmouth, I encountered the film Menashe, by documentary film-maker Joshua Weinstein.  This movie drama delves deep into the heart of New York where one father will face a gruelling battle, against tradition and religion, in an attempt to regain his child. 

The film is set within the secretive Ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jewish community, which resides in Brooklyn’s Borough Park district, well known for their ‘religious conservatism and social seclusion’. Formerly described as an ‘insular and close-knit’ society, they allow G-d and the Talmud (code of Jewish law) to dictate every aspect of their life from Food and Love to Education. 

The story of Menashe, who is a grocery shop worker, presents the consequences of being a single father within this strict community.  After the death of his wife, Menashe is forced to lose his son to his brother in law, due to the laws of Talmud which dictate a child must grow up in a two-parent household.  If Menashe wishes to remain within his community and have custody of his son, he has no choice but to find another wife through the help of a Yenta (Jewish matchmaker).  Menashe is portrayed as a lazy and sometimes egotistical character who will come to the eventual decision of sacrificing the last ounce of his freedom for his only child.

The film explores what it means to be a member of the Hasidic community and how hard it can be to abide by the strict set of rules alongside non-Jewish societies who are judging.  It highlights not only the imbalance of wealth globally, with many members of the Ultra-Orthodox  living in cramped apartments with huge debts, but also represents a place where the movements of feminism and equality will never happen.  During one scene, Menashe faces a female date who finds the idea of women driving a ludicrous thing, alongside his rabbi constantly reinforcing the misogynistic ideas of the Talmud in which ‘the key to happiness is threefold: nice wife, nice house, nice dishes’.

Unfortunately ultra-orthodox Judaism embodies a mantra of sexism and injustice which to an unreligious audience may seem deeply offensive and controlling; however, it is important to understand this is their Tradition, a tradition that the majority of this community will be born into and die in.     

The film itself certainly contrasts with the majority of modern-day movies, which tend to contain an  over-dramatized and action-filled performance. Instead, Weinstein focuses on breaking the walls that separate the ultra-orthodox community from mainstream society, through his unique and humble concentration on the raw human emotion of his characters.  The movie is filmed entirely in the Yiddish language, the main language spoken by the Chassidic community, which is used as a device by Weinstein to add a sense of authenticity and realism to the film.  Despite the important role the language plays within it, there is a continuous lack of dialogue throughout, which is exchanged for filming in a slow medium with a number of character close-ups. This allows the audience to consider the character without any speech but just the simplicity of a facial expression, to the point of focusing on the beads of perspiration on Menashe’s face.  In addition, Weinstein is reminding us that behind the religious attire there lies a normal person like you and me.   

I find Menashe a deeply moving and unusual film particularly in contrast to mainstream movies today which place a large emphasis on Islamic extremism; Weinstein's film sheds light on an a closed community that is largely unknown, encouraging us to question our preconceptions of religious extremism and understand no religion will be free from it as long as religion continues to exist.  
I would not only recommend you watch this unusual and emotive movie, but visit the little-known No.6 cinema yourself!  Located within the Historic Dockyards it boasts one of the biggest screens on the south coast with a large number of audience seats available. Lastly, I would particularly encourage anyone with an interest in art, film or foreign languages to check out No.6 with its monthly rotation of ‘world cinema and cult classics’ you won’t find anywhere else! 

Check it out here  : https://www.no6cinema.co.uk/venue

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