Katie and I rarely go to the movies, so when I proposed a movie date Saturday night and she counterproposed the new Coen Brothers movie, “A Serious Man,” I jumped at the chance. I know it’s hardly the latest film to open, but I no longer imagine I’m in the cultural avant garde. Thank God.
Catholic alert: This is a Jewish movie, which may be why it has received scant mention in the Catholic press. This is a pity, because this is a serious movie about religious faith and culture. The filmmaking brothers Coen are children of Abraham. Whether they are in any sense observant Jews today would be hard to say, judging by the movie. Yet from the opening scene—a prologue in Yiddish, involving a dybbuk who appears in an Eastern European shtetl of a previous century—we are clearly dealing with a film made by Jews about Jewish culture.
Then why did it hit so close to home for me, a Catholic convert?
From the shtetl of the prologue we move to the suburbs of America circa 1967, or shortly after Jefferson Airplane released their first major hit, “Somebody to Love,” which has a pivotal place in the film. The serious man is Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a college physics professor teaching Heisenberg’s uncertainty priniciple, whom we first see undergoing a chest x-ray. We soon learn that Larry is coming up on both his tenure hearing and his son’s bar mitzvah. Meanwhile, Larry’s life is falling apart. His wife has announced that she is leaving him for another man, Sy Ableman. Sy Ableman?! he asks. We’ve been having problems, you and I, his wife says. Yeah, but Sy Ableman?!
Sy is a newly sensitized modern man, sporting a full beard, a natty tam o’shanter, and powder-blue sportswear. He arrives at Larry’s house for a man-to-man talk bearing the anesthetics of contemporary life: good wine and psychobabble. His first gesture is to hug Larry. In a later scene, where Larry’s wife is present, Sy places his hairy hand thoughtfully on Larry’s folded fists, while offering self-help pablum about the impending divorce. Larry is too kind, too confused to do what he obviously wants to do: lay Sy out flat.
Larry moves out while waiting for the divorce proceedings, which means moving into the Jolly Roger Motel with his troubled brother Arthur. From this point on, Larry is looking for understanding, clarity, certainty, and he looks to his religion in the form of a succession of rabbis, working his way up the ladder from a clueless junior rabbi through a self-important CEO type toward the ultimate soothsayer, Rabbi Marshak, an old bearded sage reminiscent of the dybbuk of the prologue. Larry never gets in to see Rabbi Marshak, who is too important or just too old to see anyone but the newly bar-mitzvahed.
So Larry’s religious culture gives him no answers; even his son’s bar mitzvah will be a travesty, when the son shows up stoned. And yet. Circumstances alone start working in Larry’s favor again: Sy Ableman is killed in a car accident; Larry gets tenure after days of nail-biting; and it seems that with Sy out of the way, Larry’s marriage may even be salvageable. And yet. The wheel turns again, and in the penultimate scene, Larry gets an urgent call from his doctor asking him to come in right now to talk about the results of that chest x-ray. In the final scene, Larry’s son’s Hebrew class is alerted to an approaching tornado. As the tornado bears down and the students watch helplessly from the schoolyard, the Hebrew teacher fumbles with the keys to the storm shelter. It is uncertain whether he can save the class from violent death.
Recently I have been hit with uncertainty. A situation that I thought was ideal has begun showing cracks. It’s nothing as serious as my health or Katie’s, but it’s something deeply unsettling. I thought everything was going so well. And yet. Perhaps not. Watching Larry Gropnik react fearfully to the changing circumstances of his life, I was reminded uncomfortably of my own. I squirmed in my seat at the cinema. I do not doubt that many Jews are buoyed by their faith. Larry, however, was not, and in that wonderfully symbolic final scene, I saw that the teacher who appeared to have the keys to salvation was, in fact, unable to lead his students to safety.
A tornado is coming. Probably it will arrive unannounced, much like the urgent call from Larry’s doctor, or like my father’s diagnosis of melanoma last year. Who will be holding the keys to the shelter when that storm hits, when that phone call comes? In my tradition, St. Peter holds the key: to the Church, to the Kingdom. But will the door open for me?
That depends, I believe, on faith, on the grace of faith. Is my faith strong enough to stand in the winds that will blow? Is it even strong enough today, in the mild breeze that ruffles my hair?
“A Serious Man” is a serious movie, and I would recommend it for any Jew or Catholic with serious questions, or any atheist for that matter. Just don’t expect to hear the answer from the lips of Rabbi Marshak.