Berlin Film Fest 2020: A Community Makes a Man in “Minyan”

“When you can do something, it only takes a minute, but when you can’t, you stay in the dark forever,” the septuagenarian Herschel (Christopher McCann) says admiringly in “Minyan,” as he watches David (Samuel L. Levine) screw in a light bulb for him and his flat mate Itsak (Mark Margolis) at a Jewish retirement home in Brighton Beach. David’s grandfather Josef (Ron Rifkin) is in the apartment next door, and while his relative youth can be seen as a strength by Herschel who no longer feels he can literally or figuratively reach such heights himself in his golden years, you know David actually believes the opposite is true when he can be seen in the opening scene of Eric Steel’s compelling drama begging Josef to take him with him, yearning for wisdom and a change of scenery when so much of the life he was born into no longer makes sense.

In observing David wrestle with his identity, Steel adapts David Bezmozgis’ short story in a way that won’t let you go as it resists any obvious labels at every turn, working with co-writer Daniel Pearle and editor Ray Hubley to establish an unusual rhythm where one feels that the length of every scene spent in David’s company is tantamount to how much that moment will ultimately mean to him when he’s fully formed. When he gets kicked out of Yeshiva school for looking a little too long at a classmate in the shower, the sequence of events is comically condensed, playing out as if it were a Buster Keaton short, but far longer are scenes where he’s hanging out at the Scheur House of Brighton Beach where the residents are putting a previous life behind them, much like he would hope to. Instead, David still has to live with his unhappily married parents and abide the strictures of the Russian Jewish community that has made a life in America sustainable financially when there is such strong support for one another if unbearable personally.

One knows from McCann’s restless turn and the competing clarinets in David Krakauer and Kathleen Tagg’s wonderfully docile score that David has yet to reconcile who he is internally, making his unease in any number of worlds that he’s naturally been assigned a place in particularly pronounced, and while “Minyan” never strays from his perspective, the film is quite moving in presenting the dilemma facing all of the characters, no matter what their screen time is, balancing their personal desires against what they feel is their obligation to others and greater society. It’s a struggle that extends from David’s parents, who both take jobs in the U.S. that are greatly diminished variations on what they did professionally in Russia, to those in the gay community that David gingerly steps foot in at a time when everyone else feels as if they’re drowning in quicksand when fear of the AIDS epidemic is at fever pitch in the late ‘80s.

In crafting a story where so much promise is left unfulfilled for those onscreen, “Minyan” comes through on its own and then some in relating the impressions that have been left on David as he witnesses disappointment and experiences it himself and comes to decide on his own what his notion of fair and right is, as well as what will make him content. It may be an open question whether he’ll ever find completely satisfying answers, but “Minyan” brings such serenity.

“Minyan” will screen at the Berlin Film Festival on February 23rd at 8 pm at the Cubix 5, February 27th at 7:30 pm at the CinemaxX 7, February 28th at 4:15 pm at the Zoo Palast 2, February 29th at 8 pm at the Cubix 7, and March 1st at 2 pm at the Cubix 9.

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