Woody Allen Should Have Quoted Pascal: “Magic in the Moonlight”
I am no Roger Ebert and don’t watch that many movies, but in my opinion, for what it’s worth, Woody Allen’s 2014 film “Magic in the Moonlight” is one of the last year’s most theologically profound movies. The theological point, however, may easily be missed without careful attention to the story’s irony.
On the surface, unlike Allen’s other theologically profound movie “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” “Magic in the Moonlight” seems to be a light hearted Shakespearian type comedy. Someone might also see similarities with “My Fair Lady.” I did, anyway. However, anyone knowledgeable about modernity as a cultural ethos (the theme of my The Journey of Modern Theology) cannot miss the emphasis on reason and its limitations.
The main character (played by Colin Firth) is a 1920s celebrity magician whose side line is exposing mediums and psychics as frauds. (Another echo of reality—Houdini.) He is obsessed with Enlightenment-inspired rationalism (positivism) and seems personally offended, on behalf of humanity, by belief in the supernatural. He quotes Nietzsche several times during the movie—on the subject of the death of God and the demise of religion.
However, in the process of attempting to expose a charming young medium as a fraud, he falls in love with her. There are two main problems with this (for him). First, he’s already engaged to someone and their relationship is rational. That is, they are made for each other. Second, his love for the young female medium is completely irrational; they have nothing in common and breaking up with his fiancée to marry her is an offense to reason.
At the end of the movie the magician and the medium get together but only in spite of reason and common sense—as made abundantly clear through a conversation between him and his aunt.
This all-too-brief description of the movie cannot begin to do justice to its charm. The acting is wonderful, the dialogue brilliant, and the scenery amazing.
Toward the end of the movie I couldn’t help blurting out “Do you love by reason?” (Fortunately I was watching the movie at home on DVD because that might have been a problem in a movie theater!) That’s a famous quote from Blaise Pascal, the 17th century mathematician and Christian apologist (and many other things). If I am not mistaken, that question appears in Pensees immediately following the more famous quote “The heart has reasons the reason knows not of.” (For you purists who demand documentation for everything, I apologize. I don’t have time to look it up right now. Take my word for it if you can—Pascal wrote both.)
This seems to me to be the whole point of the movie—other than entertainment through a good story well acted out. The magician resists falling in love with the fake medium with all his mind. But, in the end, he goes against reason and falls into the mystery of inexplicable love. (At the end of the movie I felt sorry for his love interest—in the same way I feel sorry for Eliza Doolittle at the end of “My Fair Lady” every time I see it.)
I think it would not be too much of a stretch to interpret “Magic in the Moonlight” as an anti-rationalism movie. Not anti-reason, but a movie exposing the silliness of extreme rationalism. Call its motif “Pascalian” (to invent a term). Pascal did not reject “the principles of reason;” he only rejected the rationalism he saw budding in Descartes and other Enlightenment philosophers. Pascal anticipated postmodernity by criticizing the omnicompetence of reason.
I’m sure I’m going far beyond anything Woody Allen intended when I say that the movie points to love as a signal of transcendence. The floating candle at the séance may have been faked, but the absurdly irrational love for the medium wasn’t. That’s the point of the movie and I think it’s possible to go the next step and say that the capacity of the human heart to love beyond reason points toward a reality beyond the material and observable. It is reasonable to be open to that revealing itself (or Himself) to us.