The Silence of God
This was one of the four films that I saw early in 1990 that inspired me to launch Visual Parables 25 years ago. That first review was just two short paragraphs. The film offers so many possibilities for a discussion of God, Good, and Evil that I now offer this greatly expanded review. It contains many spoilers, so if you have not yet seen either this film or the film that complements it, Broadway Danny Rose, I urge you to watch them first.
Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 44 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 3; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 3.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled; my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For they have no pain; their bodies are sound and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are; they are not plagued like other people. Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them like a garment. Their eyes swell out with fatness; their hearts overflow with follies. They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression. They set their mouths against heaven, and their tongues range over the earth.
The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.
His hand is heavy despite my groaning. /Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling!
In the old days the Hayes Office forced filmmakers to show that the good were always rewarded and the wicked punished. Even in movies of the Thirties that glorified gangsters and their stylish living, the bad guys played by James Cagney or Humphrey Bogart were required to meet a violent or incarcerated end. But then came the Sixties, and the old simplistic moral code was called into question, faced with a real world in which the rich got richer, by hook or crook, good guys often come in last, or like JFK and MLK, Jr., met untimely ends while evil dictators lived to a ripe old age, and the policeman was not always your friend, and U.S. Presidents lied to the people almost as much as Communist dictators.
Following in a line of iconoclastic filmmakers, Woody Allen, in what I consider to be his masterpiece, presents us with the dilemma of a world in which a murderer gets away with his crime, and a neurotic good guy loses the girl to an egotistical heel and finds his plans for a documentary film doomed to disappointment. This is a film worthy of serious study and discussion, especially in conjunction with a study of issues raised in such Biblical writings as Job, Psalm 37 and 73, and the little book of Habakkuk. After the film was released on VHS tape the theology professor at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, where I was working on my D. Min. degree borrowed my copy whenever he lectured on theodicy.
At the outset of the film we see that Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) is an outstanding man—he is being honored at a banquet for his service to the community. His loyal wife Miriam Rosenthal (Claire Bloom) listens attentively as he makes his acceptance speech. We soon see the ironic symbolism in his profession of ophthalmologist, because beneath that upright façade is a devious betrayer. For some time he has been secretly spending time with a flight attendant, Dolores Paley (Anjelica Huston), leading her on with the age old promise of philanderers—that “some day” he will divorce his wife so they can marry.
His problem is that Dolores wants that “some day” to be soon, no not, “soon,” but now. She delivers an ultimatum. If he doesn’t tell Miriam about their affair, she will. She already has sent a letter to Miriam, which Judah barely intercepted. He is deeply troubled because he does not want to hurt his wife, nor does he want the scandal of an affair and a divorce to tarnish his highly polished public image. He speaks of his dilemma in general terms to one of his patients Ben (Sam Waterston), a rabbi who is slowly going blind. Ben suggests that Judah confess and seek Miriam’s forgiveness. “I couldn’t go on living if I didn’t feel with all my heart a moral structure with real meaning – and with forgiveness,” he says. “And some kind of Higher Power. Otherwise, there is no basis as to how to live. And I know that there’s a spark of that in you, too.” Judah, however, does not believe Miriam would forgive him. Ben is going blind, but he can see clearly right from wrong. Judah has good vision, indeed is an eye doctor, but is going blind spiritually.
There is what Ben called “a spark” in Judah, as we see in a flashback to the Rosenthalls’ Seder celebration when Judah and his brother Jack (Jerry Orbach) were children. They witnessed a debate at a Seder supper between their father and an uncle and aunt about the existence of God. The uncle claimed that the world was so bad that there could not be a God, and their father clinging to the Proverb (15:3) “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.” When Judah turns to Jack about his problem, the latter, with his underworld connections, says that Dolores could easily be disposed of. Judah shrinks from this suggestion, but after Dolores calls him away from his birthday party and informs him that she wants to tell Miriam everything, Judah later tells Jack to go ahead.
During a talk with Ben, Judah had said, “God is a luxury I can’t afford,” and Ben observes, “Now you’re talking like Jack.” Now devoid of that “luxury,” Judah nonetheless exclaims when Jack telephones him that the deed is done, “God have mercy on us, Jack!” He sits in silence, and then moves to the bathroom to wash his hands. A very interesting bit of symbolism. Judah goes to check out Dolores’s apartment and to remove anything that might link them. As he sits staring at her body, he is upset that her sightless eyes look like a “black void.” He is reminded again of his father and the proverb—also of an aunt at the table, who observed that Hitler got away with murder without being struck down by God, so that anything is justified if there is no God.
The “Misdemeanor” part of the film involves the neurotic Cliff Stern (Woody Allen); the smug Lester (Alan Alda); Wendy (Joanna Gleason), who is the sister of both Ben and Lester; and Halley Reed (Mia Farrow), a PBS producer. Cliff is a struggling film documentarian, whereas Lester is a wealthy Hollywood producer of shallow TV comedies that are highly popular. Both are vying for the affections of Halley, even though Cliff is married to Wendy. Lester is given to such observations as “If it bends, it’s comedy; if it breaks, it isn’t comedy.” His whole approach to work and to women turns Cliff’s stomach, especially when Lester, through his sister’s influence, is hired to direct a documentary about his nemesis. Cliff, wants to portray Lester as a fraud, and so plans to splice in a shot of Francis the Talking Mule. Halley, defends Lester, “He’s an American phenomenon,” “So is acid rain,” counters Cliff.
Even if you have not seen this tale, you can guess who gets the girl and who is left out in the cold, both of romance and show biz success. Cliff’s predicament is all the more poignant because of the choice his idol, Prof. Louis Levy. Cliff has made a documentary on this great thinker, so he has lots of footage of him. In one clip the wise man says, “We all need love in order to stay in life…. The universe is really a pretty cold place. It is we who invest it with our feelings. And under certain conditions we feel it isn’t worth it anymore.” Good as his word, the despairing teacher one day jumps out a window to his death, this act leaving Cliff devastated.
The two stories come together at the wedding party for Ben’s daughter. By now Ben is physically blind, but enjoying life nonetheless. Ben had protested that without God all is darkness, which Judah readily accepts. The latter observes that after time the pangs of conscience fall silent, and he is able to justify matters when a drifter is blamed for the murder, the man having killed other people. What a development, the blind man seeing God and the moral path, and the ophthalmologist becoming morally blind, dwelling in a “black void,” seemingly walking away free from his crime.
This well-crafted film is open to various interpretations, the most prominent being that the director/writer is expounding on his view of an empty universe devoid of anything resembling the God of his forebears. However, people of faith might interpret the film differently in the belief that the filmmaker is dealing with something far deeper than the shallow belief that “God is in his heaven and all’s right with the world.” By no means claiming that Mr. Allen is a crypto believer, I want to suggest that the filmmaker has created more than he actually knows–or believes.
The following interpretation is based on Scriptures, written by those who probed a little more deeply into human existence than the author of “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.” (Proverbs 15:3) The writer(s) of the 37th and the 73rd Psalms raise(s) the question of the wicked getting away with their crimes while the good suffer. In the second of the two psalms the writer confesses that he “almost stumbled” because he was beginning to envy the success of the wicked. Then he was pulled back when he went to the temple where, immersed in worship and praise, his faith was renewed and he saw the ultimate fate of the wicked. The psalm suggests that when we as individuals are in danger of losing our faith, it is wise to join with fellow believers whose faith can nourish our faltering one. From start to finish the writers of the Scriptures see faith as a communal affair, and not just an individual one.
The author of Ecclesiastes (3:16-22) also saw injustice where justice should be dispensed, but in his case his almost fatalistic belief that death comes to the wicked as well as the just prevented him from dispensing with faith altogether. And the entire Book of Job was written to refute the belief that we can easily sort out the good from the wicked because in this life God always rewards the good and punishes the wicked. Jesus also rejected the belief that those who are suffering or poor are afflicted by God when he refused to accept his disciples’ inference that the blind man before them was being punished for his sins. (John 9:1-3). Indeed, his whole understanding of his mission is that God uses the voluntary suffering of the innocent to overcome evil.
And so we ask, “Is Mr. Allen’s film just a tale of getting away with it – or can we regard Judah’s fate itself a punishment, his transformation into a moral monster, his conscience now blinded?” To recapitulate, the author of Psalm 73 confesses that he almost sank into despair because of the success of the wicked, but escaped thanks to his joining his community that shared an absolute faith in the goodness of God. Job also sinks into despair for a while, and who wouldn’t with those so-called friends constantly harassing him with their demands that he confess his sins, it being obvious to them and their shallow thinking that God has been punishing the patriarch. In the midst of his so-called comforters’ haranguing Job calls out, “His (God’s) hand is heavy despite my groaning. /Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling!” The patriarch does eventually find God, or rather, in the midst of his misery and crying God finds him, speaking out of the whirlwind, assuring the victim that his Creator is near—but never “explaining” the mysteriousness of the misery of the good and the ease of the wicked.
In the light of the Job passage above, where is God in Allen’s pair of Good Friday-like stories? Has Judah really gotten away with his crime, or, as suggested above, is the death of his beliefs and his conscience his punishment? He is so much like the Pharisees whose hypocrisy Jesus condemned when he charged, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.” (Matt. 23:27) Although outwardly respectable, Judah is now joined with the debauched, described by the apostle Paul, “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” (Romans 1:28-31) Judah, unless he changes, will never know the results of faith and giving oneself in the service of God–the joy that envelopes all those who believe. The latter may never see the wicked caught and punished by the authorities, but then their universe extends beyond what can be seen, ruled by the Creator and Just One.
My wish for Cliff is that he might discover the tonic against despair offered by the prophet Habakkuk in his little book. In the first chapter the prophet cries out against the brutal treatment of the weak by the strong:
“Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous—therefore judgment comes forth perverted.”
This could be well the cry of Cliff; especially after his idol Prof. Levy gives up on life and jumps out a window. But like the psalmist, the prophet holds onto his belief that God and justice will prevail. In the next chapter he writes:
“I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint. Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith. Moreover, wealth is treacherous; the arrogant do not endure. They open their throats wide as Sheol; like Death they never have enough. They gather all nations for themselves, and collect all peoples as their own.”
Can Cliff, like the agonized prophet, hang on to see that “still the vision waits its time,” and that “the righteous shall live by faith”? How could Psalms 37 and 73 be of help to Cliff? Or the events of that Good Friday when wrong seemed to triumph over right? What signs of hope do you see at the end of the film? Do the words of the dead professor, which we hear at the end of the film as it reprises a number of scenes, seem ironical, or hopeful?
Prof. Levy: [voiceover] We are all faced throughout our lives with agonizing decisions. Moral choices. Some are on a grand scale. Most of these choices are on lesser points. But! We define ourselves by the choices we have made. We are in fact the sum total of our choices. Events unfold so unpredictably, so unfairly, human happiness does not seem to have been included, in the design of creation. It is only we, with our capacity to love, that give meaning to the indifferent universe. And yet, most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying, and even to find joy from simple things like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more.
I am suggesting that we view the film as a Midrash for Habakkuk 2:4. For an opposite tale I recommend that you watch Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose, in which a little man just the opposite of Judah, in fact considered by many to be a failure in life, follows the path set forth by psalmist and prophet alike, the way of sacrificial giving of oneself. I think that Ben would highly approve of Danny Rose, who says to Tina, a mobster’s girlfriend, You know what my philosophy of life is? That it’s important to have some laughs, but you gotta suffer a little too, because otherwise you miss the whole point to life.”
Contrary to Judah’ fearful lack of belief, Danny Rose goes on to express his creed as “Acceptance. Forgiveness. Love.” What a time you could have with a group over several sessions watching and discussing these two films, each offering insights into how we should be treating one another, the one dealing with the shadow side, and the other the side of Light.