When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies …
It’s the question posed by an ancient rabbi toward the end of the Coen brothers’ glorious A Serious Man, a film that is as much a spiritual masterpiece as a comic work of genius.
The question is one that transcends any faith tradition and, although it’s coming from a rabbi and posed to the bar mitzvah boy Danny Gopnik, it’s a conundrum that all of us at some point in our lives try, without success, to answer.
It’s the universal why. Why do we suffer? Why do we lose that which we love?
What is the meaning of suffering?
Perhaps an answer, insomuch as there can be one, lies in something Rilke said in his Letters to a Young Poet:
Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves … Perhaps then, some day far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way to the answer.
Before dismissing him from his synagogue office, the old rabbi tells Danny, simply, “Be a good boy.”
But even if he can succeed in being a “good boy,” there is no guarantee that Danny’s life will not be fraught, filled with sorrow, loss and suffering.
It’s a hard lesson Danny’s father, Larry, is in the midst of learning, poor soul.
Larry has been compared to a modern-day Job, a biblical character beset by suffering on all sides. He loses his health, his wife, his family, his business and his possessions. Still, the Bible story goes, Job will not curse God.
Job is a righteous man. A serious man.
But Larry is like the rest of us, thrashing through life trying to make sense of the senseless and, while perhaps not cursing God, seriously questioning what the hell is going on.
“What did I do?” Larry asks. “I didn’t do anything!”
The questions Joel and Ethan Coen posed in A Serious Man are as brutal as they are universal. The answers the brothers provide are unsatisfactory, but truthful.
There is no quid pro quo with God. We tend to want to take responsibility for the bad things that happen in our lives, but we’re not always responsible. We’re not in charge. We only get glimpses of the big picture. We want to believe that everything in life is cause and effect because if it’s not, that truth — that the innocent will suffer — is too awful to grasp.
Sometimes the righteous suffer and the evil, like the onerous Sy Ableman, prosper. It doesn’t make any sense, and it never will. The filmmakers seem to be saying that we should be good for goodness sake alone; that life is not about finding answers to the questions we have, but about the living — the journey — itself.
What you believe really doesn’t matter. What matters is how you live.
In the quirky, enduring universes that the Coen brothers have consistently created in their 14 feature films over 25 years, how you live is the center of the moral order.
While A Serious Man is certainly the most overtly religious (and perhaps most obviously self-referential if not autobiographical) of the Coens’ films, the spiritual themes in it are the thread (or the rug, if you will) that ties the rest of their oeuvre together.
Whether in the cartoonishly comical Raising Arizona, the bleakly noir The Man Who Wasn’t There or the cult favorite The Big Lebowski, the existential and spiritual questions are much the same.
The settings, storylines and genres of the Coens’ films vary wildly, so much so that most moviegoers (not us diehard Coenheads) are surprised to learn that the same guys who brought us No Country for Old Men also gave us The Hudsucker Proxy, O Brother, Where Art Thous? and Burn After Reading.
Still, that spiritual yearning and wrestling is there, ever-present and nagging at the back of our imaginations.
It would be easy to label A Serious Man as a Jewish film. It surely is that, but it’s more than that.
There’s no indication that the Jewish characters in the film have any better handle on the answer than the Gopnik’s goy next-door-neighbors with the German last name — most likely churchgoing Lutherans, given the setting in 1967 suburban Minneapolis.
The question of why is equally stultifying whether you’re a Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Muslim, Buddhist or none of the above.
One critic has called Joel and Ethan Coen “secular theologians” whose films are among the “most sneakily moralistic” in modern cinema.
I think he’s got it dead straight.
In a world of chaos, there is a moral order to the Coeniverse. It just might not be the one we were hoping for.
So, then what?
A Serious Man opens with a quote from the great Jewish sage, Rashi.
“Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.”
It’s no answer, but it’s sound spiritual advice.
Cathleen Falsani is the award-winning religion columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and author of the new book, The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers.