Sunday night I went home and took a spin through Job.
Earlier in the evening, I had attended a screening of the remarkable new Coen brothers film, "A Serious Man,'' hosted at Brandeis by the National Center for Jewish Film. The film is being compared to Job because it centers on a seemingly decent man for whom everything suddenly goes wrong, without explanation, and his efforts to seek help from God are as unsuccessful as they are persistent. The film opens in Boston Friday; I thought it was stunning -- mesmerizing, witty, bleak, honest -- but I see that the critics have been all over the map.
The film is attracting a lot of attention, in the Jewish world and the film community, for its portrayal of Judaism, or at least of Jewishness. The film, for a major release, is almost shockingly insider-y, beginning with a short story filmed entirely in Yiddish (don't worry -- it's subtitled), and the body of the film is permeated with Jewish concepts, language, and culture. The depiction of Jewish family and religious life -- in this case, in Minneapolis in the late 1960s -- is often chilling in its nihilism (or is it just emptiness?) -- but many of the scenes clearly struck a chord of recognition among the audience at Brandeis, which laughed often and knowingly at characters such as the mind-numbingly boring, and unaware, Hebrew school teacher, and the string of rabbis whose pastoral counsel often featured a mix of anecdotes that went nowhere and a series of unanswered/unanswerable questions.
The studio production notes include a few observations about the role of Judaism in the film, quoting Ethan Coen saying, "Occasionally people would ask, 'Youíre not making fun of the Jews, are you?' We are not, but some will take anything that isnít flattering as an indication that we think the whole community or ethnicity is flawed." And Joel Coen is quoted saying, "People can get a little uptight when youíre being specific with a subject matter. From our point of view, 'A Serious Man' is a very affectionate look at the community and is a movie that will show aspects of Judaism which are not usually seen."
Looking for a bit of context, I called my friend Cathleen Falsani, who, happily, has just written a book called, "The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers.'' Here's an edited transcript of our conversation:
Q: What are the Coen brothers trying to say about Judaism?
A: I don't know if they're trying to say anything about Judaism, in particular. Having looked at all 14 of their films, I see the same themes in a lot of their other films -- this one just happens to be set in an academic, Jewish, milieu. I would hesitate to take it as a commentary on Judaism. I don't think it is a reflection of their faith. And I see a lot of tenderness, frankly, in the way that they are treating a lot of their characters. The rabbis are very faulty people, like we all are, but it's not snarky.
Q: What role does faith play generally in the Coen brothers' films?
A: What I see, almost to a film, is this question of 'Why do bad things happen?' The theodicy question is almost ever present. In 'The Big Lebowski' you have this one wholly innocent man who dies in the parking lot of a bowling alley. In 'No Country for Old Men,' certainly that was a question dealt with there. But they raise more theological, metaphysical, existential questions in their films than they ever answer, which I think is brave. What does it mean to be good? If there is a God, why is there evil? They cover everything from karma and grace to sin and responsibility and community. In 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?,' they are looking at, who is my neighbor, who is my brother? There is divine intervention in some films. And, in the darkest films, we don't learn anything and a lot of people wind up dead.
Q: Do they deal with Jewish themes in other films?
A: There are Jewish characters in other films, but I donít know that I would say there are explicitly Jewish themes, and I don't know that they're dealing with a Jewish theme in 'A Serious Man,' even though it's set in a Jewish community. The themes are more universal. There's definitely some Biblical themes in some of their films, but I don't think they're trying to say anything in particular about the validity, or not, of Judaism. They're more explorers of the spiritual landscape.
Q: What do you know about their own faith lives?
A: Only what they've said, which is very little. They were raised Jewish, but left that behind after their bar mitzvahs. Their sister is quite religious and moved to Israel. Joel Coen is married to Frances McDormand, whose father and sister are Disciples of Christ ministers. But the Coens don't really reveal much about themselves, or try to interpret their work or explain their work in interviews.
Q: The depiction of the Jewish community in the film seems pretty tough, especially the portrayal of the rabbis.
A: Larry (the main character) is asking a question that there is no good answer to. Whatever religious tradition you're in, when you're suffering and asking why, there is no adequate answer. The answers the rabbis give are as ineffectual, and as good, as anybody is going to give you. I'm a Christian, and I have yet to hear anybody give anyone else a good answer from a Christian perspective. There is no good answer -- whether you're Buddhist or Muslim or Hindu, the answers don't satisfy the yearning that question comes from. So yes, it's a rough depiction, but it's reflective of what they live. I don't see it as meanspirited. It's fairly tender. And frankly the clergy come off better than the overtly religious characters in their other films, like the Bible salesman in 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' In 'A Serious Man,' the clergy are more nuanced, more human.
Q: How does their depiction differ from that of Woody Allen?
A: I think Woody Allen is far more caustic. Maybe the Coens believe religion or faith is utterly foolish, but it doesn't come across that way. In Woody Allen's films, it is the height of stupidity to believe in something other than what's in the here and now. And he's much more obsessed with death than the Coens. And I don't think any religious character comes across particularly well, except for maybe in 'Crimes and Misdemeanors,' where the rabbi came across well, but then he made him blind.
Q: What do you think of the parallels to Job?
A: There are always the obvious themes in the Coen films, but it's usually what's happening beyond the obvious that's powerful. Sure, he (Larry Gopnick, the main character) is Job, and he's a shlemiel. He doesn't curse God, but he questions why this is happening, and is therefore a lot more like most of us than Job is. But it's a fair parallel to make, and the way the film ends is far more Jobian than the rest.
Q: Do you think the film will be accessible to non-Jewish audiences?
A: I think it's extremely accessible because of the universal themes. This is a really spiritually important film, because of that question of what's the meaning of suffering. That's not Jewish -- that's everything, that's universal. It would be really shortsighted to call it a Jewish film and leave it at that -- it certainly is that, but it's more than that.
(Photo, by Wilson Webb/Focus Features, shows Aaron Wolff (center) as Danny Gopnik in Joel & Ethan Coen's "A Serious Man.")