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Earthly lives and hopes  

08 December 2017

Stephen Brown views current film releases

Father and son: Menashe Lustig and Ruben Niborsk in the Yiddish film Menashe

Father and son: Menashe Lustig and Ruben Niborsk in the Yiddish film Menashe

WHO sets the rules by which we live? For the eponymous hero of Menashe (Cert. U), it’s the rabbis’ interpretation of the Hebrew Bible’s law books (the Torah) plus the Tal­mud’s collection of textual com­­mentaries. Menashe (Menashe Lustig) is a ne’er-do-well follower of Hasidic Judaism, a particularly pious Orthodox sect.

Set in Brooklyn, the film is per­­formed almost entirely in Yiddish, a language hardly used nowadays in cinema. Even with subtitles, it takes some getting used to. This lowly grocery store employee is described by fellow Jews both as “schlimazel” (unfortunate) and “schlemiel” (incompetent). Because he forgets to close the back doors of his de­­livery van, $1000 of gelfilte fish lies ruined on the road.

While it seems that he has always been a rather slap-happy character, there are currently mitigating cir­­cumstances for his disarray. Menashe struggles to survive after the death of his wife to make a home for his son, Rieven (Ruben Niborsk).

Hasidic practice, says their rabbi, the Ruv (Meyer Schwartz), forbids a man from raising a child until he remarries. Menashe is none too keen. His first marriage, arranged by a matchmaker, was disastrous. Yet, apparently, the Talmud de­­clares that peace comes to a man only when he has a nice wife, nice house, and nice dishes. As Lionel Blue reminded us for years, Judaism is not merely a creed, but inextric­­ably wrapped up with hearth, home, and eating. Menashe is given the week leading up to his wife’s memorial service to demonstrate he’s capable of looking after Rieven. Otherwise, the boy must return to his uncle’s household.

Menashe is a devout Jew but it doesn’t stop him querying some of its attitudes and practices. He may not be a rabbi, but, like them, he spends time reinterpreting the sacred texts and applying them to the contemporary situation. His reli­gious tradition acts mainly as a stick with which to chastise him for perceived failures. On the positive side, this encourages him to do better, especially in regard to his son’s welfare.

But, as for most of us, a carrot or two doesn’t come amiss. By and large, these are supplied outside his own community. A couple of His­panic workmates are warm and affirming enough for Menashe to unburden himself. In turn, their own faith offers him hope that, however short he has fallen as husband and father, he can be forgiven and make true amends. This ex­­posure, limited as it is, to the wider Christian culture provides a valu­­able dialogue in which to tease out those elements that are necessary to his Judaism rather than contingent to it.

The film’s fly-on-the wall docu­­mentary style owes much to the real-life experiences of the non-professional lead actor. Mainly, this approach works satisfactorily for viewers, but there were times when I wished that the director, Joshua Z. Weinstein, had heeded what film schools teach about editing: get into a scene as late as possible and out as early as possible. Less in the way of establishing shots would have made for a better film.


HAVING recently watched a tired old DVD transfer of A Matter of Life and Death (Cert. U), I welcome its 4K restoration for cinemas.

This 1946 classic from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger investigates what ultimate hope there is for those fallen in war. David Niven’s fighter pilot, Peter, literally falls from his stricken aero­­plane after contacting June (Kim Hunter), a radio operator. Believ­ing that he’s plunging to death, Peter reveals his innermost secrets, there­by falling in love. When Niven, the star, lands on shore less than nine minutes into the film, we’re not entirely surprised that he’s still in one piece. Perhaps he bailed out at the very last moment; or do we question which world it is that he now inhabits?

The film continually explores this ambiguity, using Jack Cardiff’s breathtaking cinematography to do so. Scenes on earth are in Three-Strip Technicolor, but Powell deliber­ately chose to con­found audience expectations by filming the ce­­l­­estial sphere in Dye-Monochrome, a milky sort of black and white. The result is an ethereal look to the Other World. It is of a different order from what we know, one, as the opening credits put it, “that exists only in the mind of a young airman whose life & imagination have been violently shaped by war”.

There follows a contest for Peter’s continued earthly existence. He stands on the threshold between two worlds. Interestingly, at the moment of divine judgement, the Other World segues into full colour, as we view the moving staircase that, like some gigantic Jacob’s Ladder, now unites the two.

Powell isn’t alone in regretting the US re-titling of it as Stairway to Heaven. In the whole film, Richard Attenborough’s character is the only one to call it that. We are being left to ask ourselves whether we believe in its existence. It is a question every bit as pertinent now as when the film was made.

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