Over the Weekend I managed to catch the latest Coen Brothers film, A Serious Man. I enjoyed it thoroughly, enough so to overcome the rather unpleasant theater experience (detailed somewhat here). As I say in that post on IHM I still don’t feel prepared to really delve into the film on this single viewing and honestly I think for anyone outside the Jewish community there would need to be pretty extensive research into the culture to get a lot of what is going on.  No what I kept thinking about, and which I wish to ruminate a bit on here, was the idea that the film is an encapsulation of the story of Job from the bible.

6 Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan came also among them. 7And the LORD said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it. 8And the LORD said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil? 9Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, Doth Job fear God for nought? 10 Hast not thou made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land. 11But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face. 12And the LORD said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand. So Satan went forth from the presence of the LORD. (Job I:6-12, King James Bible)

The book of Job opens with an outline of Jobs possessions, setting up the parameters of the loss he is about to suffer. The plot is then setup in the above verses, as a bet between God and Satan – Job is faithful because you have blessed him, take that away and he will quickly stray. God takes the bet and Satan then takes all from Job that God has given him in quick succession: first his wealth in lands and goods, followed by his house and finally then his children. “20 Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped, 21And said, Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD. (Job I:20-21, King James Bible). This setup is the first two chapters, the bulk of the book then is Job sitting on the ashes of his life while various people come up to him and try to convince him that he brought his troubles upon himself. Job of course always remains faithful to God and in the end God rewards him for his faithfulness by making those who had spoken against him restore his wealth and gave him more children and a long life.

It is this rather troublesome book (are we just playthings of the gods? it certainly can feel that way and it is clear that this book of the bible is designed to address this particularly glaring contradiction of unwavering faith) that A Serious Man most closely resembles. Note, from this point on I’m going to discuss all aspects of the film including the end, so if you haven’t seen the film and don’t wish this spoiled I’d cease reading at this point.  The film opens with a Jewish parable set some centuries before the film that probably is the crux of film in many ways. This I’m not really prepared, nor perhaps am capable of, really discussing.  When our protaganist, Larry Gopnick, is introduced he is undergoing a physical which is intercut with his son listening to a pocket transiter radio during hebrew class. After an X-Ray (with no lead protection!) and told that he seems to be in good health Larry returns to his office at the college where he is a mathematics professor on the tenure track.  It is here that the testing of Job begins in the guise of a Korean student who tries to bribe Larry into reversing a failing grade.  It is this that I propose is the equivalent of remaing faithful to God, of being “a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil”.

Larry remains faithful and rebuffs the students attempt to get his grade changed. But the envelope of money is left, only requiring Larry’s acceptance of same to bring him down.  The Coens then begins to enact equivalents of the other trials of Job upon Larry; he loses his wife to another man, loses his house by being forced out of it and thus access to his children as well. His financial situation, shaky from the start, steadily deteriorates as the film progresses, bills from lawyers mount, first from the impending divorce and then as his brother becomes increasingly in trouble with the law. As he attempts to understand his troubles he visits the three rabbi’s of his synagogue and is given naught but platitudes, riddles and in the case of the most austere rabbi a refusal to even meet with him.  Job likewise attempts to gain some understanding of his situation via discussion with three friends, who steadfastly contend that Job  must have brought this evil upon himself.  In both of these cases there is a failure to understand the actual situation and to, in the guise of wisdom, not offer anything at all.  The Coens I think are additionally criticizing religious practice, one that transcends all religions, which is that if you give explicit advice you will invariably give some bad advice and your role as one who speaks for God (or is especially wise, or learned, or holy, or enlightened, or whatever) is undermined. If on the other hand you speak in platitudes and riddles, offering little but generalities and vague allegories then you can never be wrong and your insight (and thus your roll) never questioned and your status reinforced. Thus it is with Jobs friends, for every man sins and it is a pretty safe assertion to say that ones troubles are the results of those sins.

Larry though perseveres throughout these trials, though plagued with doubt and questioning all that he has taken for granted.  As further indignities are heaped upon him; badgering from the Columbia Record House over failure to pay for records received (by his son of course), forced to pay for the funeral of the man who has cuckold him, badgering and threats from the family of the student who has bribed him, Larry remains steadfast. And in the end things seem to right itself a bit: His rivals accidental death, his son, a poor student and inveterate stoner, miraculuously making it through his bar mitzvah during which his wife seems to reconcile with him a bit and finally he gets tenure. But at this vary moment that things seems to have taken a turn he gets a bill for the lawyer retained to represent his brother: US$3000. This proves too much a burden, one that he can not see a way out of. He changes the students grade and accepts the money.

3And the LORD said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil? and still he holdeth fast his integrity, although thou movedst me against him, to destroy him without cause. 4And Satan answered the LORD, and said, Skin for skin, yea, all that a man hath will he give for his life.  5But put forth thine hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face. 6And the LORD said unto Satan, Behold, he is in thine hand; but save his life.  7So went Satan forth from the presence of the LORD, and smote Job with sore boils from the sole of his foot unto his crown.  8And he took him a potsherd to scrape himself withal; and he sat down among the ashes. (Job 2:3-8, King James Bible)

As Larry changes the grade from an F to C (and in a classic Coen’s touch, hestates then adds to the C a minus)  he gets a call from his doctor requesting that he come in to discuss his x-ray, something that would be better discussed in person. Paralleling the beginning of the film this is intercut with Larry’s son, who had regained his confiscated transistor radio, again ignoring his hebrew class. But this time it is interrupted by a tornado warning (it is the midwest afterall) and they all mill out to the parking lot to get into the storm shelter.  As his teacher fumbles through his keyring trying to find the right one, the massive funnel of the tornado is seen approaching the children.  The film ends at this point (much to many peoples consternation, but again that is outside the scope of this post).  Satan failed in breaking Job with the loss of his goods and family and tried again with his health. Job passed that test as well, and though confused remained faithful.  Larry though failed against his final test, that final crushing financial blow and broke his faith. His loss of his son had previously been more symbolic, separated by his wifes demands for divorce and the increasing gulf between the generations.  But in the final reckoning, at the breaking of that faith, God lets it all be taken from him, even his life which he had previously spared. One can only imagine that the malady that takes Larry, keeps him alive long enough to see the completion of his ruin.

As O Brother Where Art Thou? is an allegorical take on the Odyssey A Serious Man, among its other concerns, addresses the central question of Job: “Is misfortune always a divine punishment for something?”.  While the conclusion of the film can be seen somewhat ambiguously (I present my take above, but you could perhaps argue that the film had been chapter 1 of Job and now Larry’s on to chapter 2. But in my mind that doesn’t address his final giving in and thus prefer the above interpretation) I think that they also diverge from Job in the end to consider the man who finally breaks. Or perhaps in the end their answer to the question, is that , no, misfortunate is not a divine punishment for anything because the universe is arbitrary and without meaning. Larry always would have been stricken down by disease, that tornado may or may not kill his son (among other children) , marriages are always breaking down, car crashes happen far to frequently in the United States and there are those times when everything seems to happen to us, that it feels that the universe (or god) is using us as the pawns of its allegory.