Earlier in the evening, I had attended a screening of the remarkable new Coen brothers film, "A Serious Man,” hosted at Brandeis by the National Center for Jewish Film. The film is being compared to Job because it centers on a seemingly decent man for whom everything suddenly goes wrong, without explanation, and his efforts to seek help from God are as unsuccessful as they are persistent. The film opens in Boston Friday; I thought it was stunning — mesmerizing, witty, bleak, honest — but I see that the critics have been all over the map.
The film is attracting a lot of attention, in the Jewish world and the film community, for its portrayal of Judaism, or at least of Jewishness. The film, for a major release, is almost shockingly insider-y, beginning with a short story filmed entirely in Yiddish (don’t worry — it’s subtitled), and the body of the film is permeated with Jewish concepts, language, and culture. The depiction of Jewish family and religious life — in this case, in Minneapolis in the late 1960s — is often chilling in its nihilism (or is it just emptiness?) — but many of the scenes clearly struck a chord of recognition among the audience at Brandeis, which laughed often and knowingly at characters such as the mind-numbingly boring, and unaware, Hebrew school teacher, and the string of rabbis whose pastoral counsel often featured a mix of anecdotes that went nowhere and a series of unanswered/unanswerable questions.