It's not usual to see an American film participating in the Foreign Language category of the Golden Globes, especially when it has been shot entirely in this country, but certainly Menashe, which was a success at the Sundance Film Festival early this year, explores a culture that exists in the US that has never been exposed in the way director Joshua Z. Weinstein (no relation to the disgraced mogul) has achieved. Planned almost as a documentary, Menashe opens up for us the closed communities of the Ultra-Ortodhox Jews who live in Brooklyn, New York, more specifically the one in Borough Park. As Weinstein explained to us in February, getting inside their real houses was not easy, and working with a non-professional cast was a big challenge. "We would lose locations and we would lose actors. The supermarket that we shot in, I think we ended up using three supermarkets to make one. People don’t want the camera and don’t want to compromise or bend, just like in the film. We shot on the street and huge crowds would come and observe us. For the most part, people were interested and excited and they wanted to be involved with the film and they were fascinated by it. And that was the story. It takes a lot of work to make things be so authentic", he said then.
Spoken mostly in Yiddish with a few sentences in English and Spanish here and there, the film tells a very simple story. It follows the misadventures of a widower named Menashe, played by YouTube star Menashe Lustig, who like the rest of the cast, had never been in front of a professional camera before. His brother-in-law (Yoel Weisshaus) is not happy with him and he’s not convinced he can take care of his young son (Ruben Niborski) by himself. He has been promised by the rabbi (Meyer Schwartz) that if Menashe does not immediately remarry, he will be granted custody of the young boy. As an audience, we want Menashe to succeed, but he is a real disaster, feeding the boy the wrong things and barely making enough money to pay the rent as he works in a supermarket. But marriage for him seems the worst option, as there's no love involved.
Released domestically in July by A24, which bought the rights at Sundace, Menashe received great reviews and was a decent hit grossing over $1.7 million in the US, where it played in theaters for 12 weeks. Part of its appeal is the opportunity to learn about a group that rarely allows outsiders to peek into their communities, something that Weinstein achieved after winning their trust: "Within Hasidism, there are over 40 groups. Each one listens to their Rabbi dictate what clothes they wear. In the outside world, you would think it all looks the same, but actually every group has a slightly different jacket and a little bit different hats, a little bit different socks. And they pick up on these cues about the different socks and jackets, and it’s funny, because it’s the length of the coat, it’s the sheen on the coat, it’s the pattern on the coat and they are all black. And to the outside world they all look the same, but there are actually differences for every sect about what type of garb they wear", he explained to us.