Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Media Watch
Coen Brothers’ latest film contains echoes of Job

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the Dec. 3, 2009 edition of the Inland Register)

Movie Review

Ethan and Joel Coen, who grew up Jewish in a suburb of Minneapolis, have a new film of dark comedy, titled A Serious Man. Michael Stuhlbarg, who has been best known for his fine stage acting in Broadway productions, plays the besieged Job-like Jewish husband and father in 1967 Minnesota.

Everything begins to go wrong. In the process there is lots of dark satire. I must admit that seeing this film with a Jewish friend would be very helpful.

Larry Gopnick (Stuhlbarg) is a math professor at a local university. One day while teaching, the blackboard becomes as big as the Grand Canyon, with miles of Larry’s complicated figures all over the board. Larry’s wife (Sari Lennick) asks for a divorce, including a religious one that is dependent on the husband giving it. She is leaving her responsible and good husband for an over-the-top friend who treats Larry like he is his best friend as he is pushing the knife in his back. Larry’s two children are running wild. A sick brother (Richard Kind) is monopolizing Larry’s home and kindness. An Asian student to whom Larry has given a failing grade tries to bribe Larry with a large amount of money to change the grade.

The world seems to be slipping away from Larry. He finds himself at the Jolly Roger Motel, separated from his family. Larry seeks help from three rabbis. One is young and he keeps talking about the parking lot. The head rabbi gives a long rabbinical story that seems to have no connection to Larry’s real world. The retired wise rabbi won’t let Larry in to speak to him. Anyone who has sought help or tried to give it as a counselor, friend, or priest will find this very funny and very sad.

One happy moment in the midst of much darkness is Larry’s son’s bar mitzvah that turns comic as the son Danny (Aaron Wolff), high on pot, struggles through the Hebrew readings.

A Serious Man combines themes of the seder meal in Woody Alien’s Crimes and Misdemeanors with the basic question of how can bad things happen to good people. Underlining the story is the whole question of God. Larry Gopnick doesn’t receive the hope that can be eventually found in the Book of Job. When he finally has reached the end of his rope and is willing to change the grade of the Asian student, the film brings lots of punishment to his world.

A Serious Man is a well-made film filled with sardonic humor that will not be very funny for many. My bet is that Michael Stuhlbarg may well be nominated for a best acting role in February for the Academy Awards.

At the end of the credits, where it often says that no animals were hurt in the making of this film, the Coen brothers place the statement: “No Jews were harmed in the making of this film.” Well, it is funny, but I’m not so sure it’s true. If you do see this film, there will be a lot to talk about. And you will either very much like it or wonder how you ever sat through it. Good luck.

The Motion Picture Association of America rates the film R – restricted, for language, brief violence, and sexuality.

Book Review

A few weeks ago a Holy Names Sister mentioned she was reading a book originally published in French titled The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery. The book is published in an especially fine large-sized paperback format by Europa editions of New York for a list price of $15.

The story takes place in an elegant apartment house in Paris. The two main characters are very different in age and background but are both pretty precocious in their knowledge and understanding of literature and philosophy.

Renee is very ordinary in appearance, but as the concierge of her building, she is secretly very learned and opinionated about her wealthy apartment dwellers. Paloma is a twelve-and-half-year-old, very bright daughter of the wealth Joss family. She feels distant from her family and suffers from a darkness in which she has little hope for her future life. She too keeps her learning and opinions secret from her family and confreres.

So the book begins with the two women writing of their worlds as they see them. You can tell who is writing by the different size of the print for the two women. The first half of the book is filled with discussions of philosophy in particular but it can pass over throughout the book to music, art, and culture. An American reader can’t help but think that this may be very French, at least stereotypically. So for some readers this may be the slow and somewhat difficult part. But I urge you to hang in there with the story. At about the middle of the book the plot really gets moving and you will want to stay with the story until the dramatic end.

A Japanese man named Ozu moves into the apartments and changes the lives of the two protagonists in new and exciting ways. For my taste he is almost too perfect to be real, but he has suffered the loss of his wife and seems to know what suffering is all about. Telling too much more about the plot would be unfair to anyone who wants to read this rather elegant book.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is about life and especially seeing the value of each moment of life. And yes, it is about redemption and the ability to change.

To give you a taste of one of the novel’s main themes, here are the words of the young Paloma near the end of the novel: “Oh my gosh, I thought, does this mean that this is how we must live our lives? Constantly poised between beauty and death, between movement and its disappearance? Maybe that’s what being alive is all about: so we can track down those moments that are dying.”

Anyone who has ever read Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina will enjoy all the connections, even to the naming of cats.

Those who enjoy philosophy and its connections to life will like the first part of the book. Those who like lots of plot slowly revealed will not want to put the second half of the book down. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a thoughtful and moving book.

(Father Caswell, Ecumenical Relations Officer for the Diocese of Spokane, is archivist for the Inland Register and a regular contributor to this publication.)

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