There’s that ‘M’ word again. This time in a headline quote on HuffPo from Cathleen Falsani (religion columnist for The Chicago Sun Times). A lot of superficial sideline chatter this year has swirled around who’s most offended by what in the latest provocative button-pushing movie, so it’s nice to see a film that’s inspiring discussion in a deeper vein.
Each Coen brothers’ films is marked by theological, philosophical and mythological touchstones that enrich even the slapstickiest moments. Each film probes confounding ethical and spiritual quandaries, giving us a tour of nuanced moral universes that may be individual (in the case of Barton Fink), geographic (as in Fargo), or historic (such as the Depression Era of O Brother, Where Art Thou?)… The Coens’ quirky and sometimes confounding films are rich with meaning — much of it hidden just beneath the surface — gems of spiritual insight waiting to be excavated…
There is a moral order to the worlds the Coens create. Whether it’s a farcical crime caper or an American Gothic tale of betrayal, there always are consequences to the characters’ actions, for better or for worse… Bad guys are punished and the decent are rewarded for their innate goodness, though beware the viewer who assumes it will be easy to discern which is which… Sins come to light; lies and deception are revealed. Occasionally, the hand of God intervenes to restore order from chaos.
A Serious Man encapsulates all of the spiritual themes the Coens have examined in their past films and introduces audiences to one of the more intriguing (if little-known) theological notions from Judaism — that of the Lamed Vavnik, the 36 righteous souls in every generation upon whom the fate of the rest of the world rests.
The film continues the Coens’ work as secular theologians whose body of work one astute critic described as “the most sneakily moralistic in recent American cinema.”
By the way, if there are any remaining doubts about the semi-autobiographical roots of A Serious Man, Ms. Falsani notes that the movie is set in an academic community in 1967, as young Danny Gopnick prepares for his bar mitzvah. The Coen parents were both college professors, and 13-year-old Joel Coen had his bar mitzvah in 1967.