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A Serious Man – a spoiler free invitation

November 22, 2009 – 9:42 am12 Comments

a-serious-man-posterBy Anthony Frosh

Last night I went along with RachSD to see the new film by the Coen brothers, A Serious Man.  On a night where we experienced weather that had an almost biblical feel – in Melbourne, the end of Shabbat has brought a drought-breaking rain, a rain that is still continuing as I write this Sunday morning, and seemingly has not abated once since sunset last night – it seemed apt to see a film based, albeit loosely, on book from the Tanakh.  In this case it is the Book of Job (Iyov) set in the spring of 1967 in Jewish Minnesota.  In addition to the bible, the film also appears to draw inspiration from the Yiddish literature of the shtetl (and I am not merely referring to the film’s prologue), and as RachSd has pointed out to me, from Franz Kafka.  For the cerebral filmgoer, this is a work that provides plenty of food for thought.

I really do not want to give too much away here, so let me just say that when a film opens with a quote from Rashi, followed by a gripping prologue story set in a shtetl and filmed in Yiddish, at least a couple of things become apparent:

1) This is going to be a very different film (but then, aren’t all films by the Coen brothers?).

2) This is going to be a great film for discussion on Galus.

However, a discussion of a film without spoilers is a discussion with too many limitations – so given it’s only recently been released, here is a proposition

  • Go forth and see this film if you haven’t already.
  • Let’s meet back in a week (min) or two (max).
  • We’ll have someone write an article to start the discussion – feel free to contact us if you think you are up to this challenge – we’re looking for someone who can discuss the film in a biblical context, and possibly also a literary context.

Finally, please refrain from leaving spoilers in the comments section, but do let us know if you have seen the film, and whether you liked it.

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  • Sam says:

    This is a very entertaining and thought provoking movie from the Coens, possibly their best, but I could not see how members of the audience without a Jewish background would comprehend many of the nuances and even some of the words of the main section (spoken in English),  pertaining to specific Jewish themes.
    I will only comment now on the brief prologue which was fantastic viewing for anyone fond of Yiddish language or pre-war Yiddish theatre and film.  The dialogue,  plot and cinematography looked and sounded as if it was an excerpt from a Yiddish film from Poland circa early 1930’s, even though it was set  earlier.
    What was very obvious here was the inadequacy of the English language of the sub-titles, to convey the richness of humour and emotional impact of the Yiddish dialogue. This  was not due to any lack of ability of the script writer/translater, but  is just inherent in any translation  from Yiddish to any other language.  However any viewer without any Yiddish language knowledge would not even  be aware that the dialogue conveys much more than the sub-titles and will find them quite satisfactory.

  • The Hasid says:

    Seeing this movie on Thursday night. Can’t wait. I love the Coen brothers all the time, but this one’s really got me on shpilkas.

    Sam – my parents basically said exactly the same thing re: the film’s themes, characterisation, dialogue and the Yiddish bit at the beginning (they’re both Yiddish speakers).

    I’d love to know what any non-Jewish Galus readers thought of the film…?

  • frosh says:

    I found the prologue to be absolutely gripping!

    It is fair to say that I understood more Yiddish when I was a small child than I do now. 

    Nevertheless, I understood enough of the Yiddish to get the sense of the fanatstic rhythm of the dialogue, which subtitles can rarely capture.

    Just a question on accents:  I thought the married couple spoke Yiddish with different accent to the third character (no spoilers on who this thrid character is)

    To my ear, it sounded like the married couple spoke Yiddish with the accent of Yiddish speakers from Russia, while the third character spoke with the accent of a Yiddish speaker from Poland.

    What did people think?

  • Sam says:

    Hi Frosh, interesting point made about the accents of the Yiddish in the prologue. The third character spoke exactly as my parents did to me as a child. They are both from Poland, but not the same region. The couple were slightly more difficult for me to understand, (I am not too fluent in Yiddish these days), but it was similar enough to be probably Polish as well.  However I remember as a child in the late 50’s my parents and my uncle saying that they could identify what region of Poland a jew originated from by their accent. Bialystokers were very distinct from Warsawas for example. Somewhat similar to how the English characterise their countrymen from their dialect.

  • Shoshanna Silcove says:

    My Own Movie Review

    Meet Prof. Larry Gopnik, the assimilated Jewish-American everyman, a nebbishy absent minded shlamiel, surrounded by his dysfunctional family in 1967 suburbia.  His world is crumbling around him, and outside of his mathematical equations, nothing adds up.  When his conventional yet frustrated wife announces she is leaving him for their family friend Sy Abelman, Larry, who never saw it coming, is caught completely off guard and dumbstruck.  The plot takes off from this point with the  blackest of  humour  and  a look into the Coen brothers’ version of the alienation of the modern assimilated Jew that resonated with me.

    Having grown up in assimilated American suburbia I recognised many of the movie’s scenes from out of my own childhood. The excruciating boredom of Hebrew school, the bland spiritually numbing middle class culture,  the foolish pompous phoney Rabbis and their irrelevant inauthentic  religious establishment, all depicted super-realistically by the Coen brothers’. 

    And the characters, each and every one of them, is a gem.  There is Larry’s pot smoking foul mouthed TV watching bar mitzvah boy son,  his narccisistic nose job-obsessesed daughter, his ultra-conventional frustrated glib fast talking wife, and her overly emotive slobbering middle-aged psuedo-intellectual boyfriend. Then there are the ancillary characters like the Jew-hating hunter goy and his son next door, the hardened shrewish synagogue secretaries, and so on.  Each character is hilarious in their own right  and striking without becoming cartoonish.

    The point of the whole  movie? Well, to me it was a black hunourous slant on the concept of hashgacha protis, not one that is line with my own personal hashkafas, but funny and food for thought nevertheless, as well as a critique of the emptiness of life as an assimilated Jew–a searing commentary on the emptiness and spiritual wasteland of a life without Yiddishkeit . To me it highighted  that a life  not grounded in Torah faith and wisdom is a life without meaning  or understanding.

  • Almoni says:

    Shoshana said ”  a critique of the emptiness of life as an assimilated Jew–a searing commentary on the emptiness and spiritual wasteland of a life without Yiddishkeit . To me it highighted  that a life  not grounded in Torah faith and wisdom is a life without meaning  or understanding.”
    Far from it. I found the film dripping with Judaism of the type I grew up, and a funny flat, suburban mid-Westerness (it certainly wasn’t Boston) and it was scary to be reminded just how isolated a community can be. For example, there is a a suspicion of goyim–to use a word thrown around a lot in the film, deference to rabbis of various degrees of inadequacy, and a constant struggle with Ha-shem–used again and again in the film. It’s a contemporary book of Job by as a film by two secular Jews.  The Coens have written about their world and used it as a metaphor for many things.  You can’t predict the future. If they can provoke people in such a way to think about what life means, then what a great use of heritage.
    Poor Gopnik has all these struggles, thinks he is about to overcome them, and kaboom, a call from the doctor about his x-rays and a tornado is about to hit.
    We could probably go around in circles for ever about the emptiness of the type of religion practised by Gopnik and others,  and their isolationism amidst freedom, but remember, it’s a film, not reality.  You could probably argue that similar degrees of neurotic, unrealised life exists in all degrees of religious observance, whatever the religion.
    But as a film it took me back to my childhood when people, coming out of traditional backgrounds DID go to rabbis for counselling (maybe this thing still happens), when the problem should have been dealt with through professional therapy. It’s an early baby-boomer film about the world some of us grew up in. And those bloody glass ashtrays–I loved to empty them!
    Gopnik and other adults were probably the first ‘local’ American-born generation, caught between tradition and modernity.  Their reform temple, with 3 generations of rabbis reflected this, and the oldest Marshayk, being a living link to the past Europe, with a hint of magic and speculation about him (and maybe to the Yiddish movie at the start).
    The first Yiddish scenes in the film were I think meant to introduce ideas about magic and strangeness, but it didn’t quite work for  me.  It as too recreated.  Despite this, the ‘real film’  made me squirm with painful memories of all sorts of family crisis in this culture clash. Plus laugh and laugh –teeth inscribed with hoshieni (!)
    I nearly forgot, until I checked what other reviewers have said– The movie’s epigraph comes from the writing Rashi: “Receive with simplicity all the things that happen to you.
    I’m not so sure, actually. And to what degree people who haven’t grown up Jewish can pick up on all the cultural ins and outs, I am not so sure, but the fact that it has been quite successful appears to indicate that the film is a very powerful one and the messages get through even if you don’t get the in jokes of rote declension of Hebrew verbs in school.  But then, if Kiarostami’s films can be understood by a non-Iranian audience, why can’t a film about Minnesota Jews?
    Enough with the cultural endogamy.

  • Henry Herzog says:

    Could someone who has seen the film please tell me if it’s violent. The Coens are famous for their violence and it really freaks me out. The sort of violent in the Die Hard or Indian Jones films, other than the Temple of Doom, well they’re harmless because they are almost comical and fanciful, but there are films with serious cruel violance which I can’t stomach. So please, could someone help me out with that one. Thanks in anticipation.

  • frosh says:

    Hi Henry,

    A Serious Man is not a violent film. It is true that some Coen bros. films have had some nasty violence (e.g. No Country for Old Men), but A Serious Man is quite tame in this respect.

    PS, Love your reference to the “Indiana Jones films, other than the Temple of Doom.”

    As a young child, I found Temple of Doom to be quite scary. There was something about strange religious cults that sacrifice human beings that resonated with by fear-centre :-)

  • Shoshanna Silcove says:

    Almoni, not a single one of the rabbis Larry Gopnik sought couunselling from could give him any spiritual guidance. None of them could explain anything to him about the purpose of creation, the nature of Hashem, or what it means to be Jewish. None of them had an iota of wisdom to impart to him that could give him the skills or the spiritual strength or inspiration to face his problems. Their Judaism was therefore, in my view, empty and void of any real substance. This was exactly the type of Judaism I was raised in. The characters could speak about Hashem all they wanted yet, it didn’t help them to get any closer to Him.  Larry Gopnik remained the alienated assimilated Jew, estranged from his roots and  not a part of the country he lived in either.

    Anwyay, this movie is a work of art and as art it speaks to different people in different ways. There is no correct point of view.

  • frosh says:

    Readers might be interested in the following:

    A Serious Man – Ayeka asks “Does God pervert Justice?”

    Thursday, 10 June 2010
    19:00 – 21:30
    Australian Center for Jewish Civilization, Monash University, Caulfield Campus, Building H, Level 8.


    Imaginatively exploring questions of faith, familial responsibility, delinquent behavior, dental phenomena, academia, mortality, and Judaism – and intersections thereof – A Serious Man is the new film from Academy Award-winning writer/directors Joel & Ethan Coen.

    A Serious Man is the story of an ordinary man’s search for clarity in a universe where everything is hazy.

    Michael Fagenblat from Monash University’s School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies, will be screening some scenes from the film followed by a discussion of the big questions that this movie raises, in particular the many references it makes to the book of Job and the question of how a just God can allow good people to suffer.

    Cost: $10

  • Ittay says:

    for those who haven’t seen the film, but are interested in joining us on Thursday night, here are two lines of a review that tell you all you need to know about it. In attempting to describe the sometimes absurd idea of believing with emunah shleima in a god we cannot see, Dan Freidman writes:
    It is absurdly hubristic yet quintessentially human to try to dignify our brief and limited lives walking around in fleshy gasbuckets through personal reflection and social customs. We set our lives up to prolong that moment when the cartoon character rushes off the cliff and remains aloft through force of belief. We rush out of nothingness straining to look forward at the approaching thunderhead until we fall to our deaths. The serious genius of this film is to embrace and point out the contingent specificity, the physicality and the absurdity while maintaining its human dignity.
    facebook event: http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/event.php?eid=133052690041445&ref=ts

  • frosh says:

    For those, that haven’t seen the film, do yourself a favour (apologies to Molly Meldrum) and go down to the local DVD store (i think it is out already) and rent it tonight.

    I can’t recall a film that left me more thirsty for post-film discussion.

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