Perhaps you may recall, when you were a child, being taught that the world was designed by a just God who punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous. I was; I suspect most of us were. But as adults, we look around the real world and see immoral behavior rewarded while the decent are passed over; sometimes we cannot help but wonder if this childhood notion about the universe’s moral structure was an invented fabrication rather than an absolute truth, revealed through the holy word and ancient traditions.
Judah Rosenthan (Martin Landau), the main character in Woody Allen’s 1989 film “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” wonders this too. Well, he more than wonders; he frets over it, as if his very essence depends on the answer to this question. You see, he has a serious problem and the seemingly only solution would be a gross violation of the moral universe he had been taught about, by his religious father, when he was young. In the opening scene of the film, he recalls his father telling him “The eyes of God are on us all.” Now as an adult, he must quickly decide if he believes or rejects it. The rest of his life, and the fate of his soul, rests on this faith. Or lack of it.
Judah is an ophthalmologist who has everything: a highly successful practice, a large house, a loving family, countless friends, and even a mistress (Anjelica Huston). But when his mistress demands he divorce his wife and won’t take “no” for an answer, Judah’s world teeters on the brink of crashing down. He seeks help from his worldly brother Jack (Jerry Orbach) who has shady connections and suggests that the woman “can be gotten rid of.”
Judah’s subsequent moral crisis takes him down a long, dark inner path where his orthodox upbringing returns to haunt him. He opens up to one of his patients, a rabbi (Sam Waterston), who is rapidly losing his eyesight. Judah has both real and imagined conversations with the rabbi who presents the conventional view of Jewish morality. He concludes by telling Judah that, even assuming the lack of supernatural judgment, a man could not live with himself knowing that, for selfish reasons, he murdered someone who loved him. I believe that the rabbi’s blindness is an important metaphor, for Allen, who seems to be suggesting that traditional Jewish ethics are blind to the way the real world works.
For me, the most dramatic scene in the film is when Judah returns to his boyhood home and there witnesses a Passover Seder from his past where his relatives, many long dead, debate whether there is a God who punishes the wicked. Judah interacts with this memory placing a strong value on how his ancestors react to his current situation, uniting childhood with adulthood.
To break the tension, the film has a lighter, comic subplot which concerns a struggling filmmaker named Cliff (Allen); he is trying to make a documentary about an upbeat philosophy professor (Martin S. Bergmann) who makes some very profound observations about life and love and theology. But to make some money to help him complete the documentary, Cliff takes a job profiling the vain and pompous sit-com creator Lester (played with relish by Alan Alda). There he meets and falls for the cute producer Halley (Mia Farrow); but Cliff faces competition from Lester. Although Halley is repulsed by Lester’s arrogant egotism and drawn to Cliff’s earnest sweetness, is it possible she might chose shiny but empty success over socially awkward substance?
At first, it may seem the two plotlines may have nothing to do with each other, but a closer examination reveals they share a similar theme: there clearly is a difference between the way the world ought to work and the way it seems to work. Does God interfere in human lives, or is He perceptibly absent?
Allen does attempt to answer this eventually. The scene in which we find out what happens to the life-loving philosophy professor is shocking, but the final scene, in which Judah and Cliff meet at a wedding and discuss their respective issues, is downright chilling.
I believe that “Crimes and Misdemeanors” is a very Jewish film; it asks perhaps the most basic question in Judaism: “Is there a God and has He set up a moral structure to the universe?” I don’t think a Christian filmmaker could have made it. I doubt a true Christian would even dare ask the question, let alone be willing to accept the possibility that the answer is “no.” But a true Jew embraces the question and happily debates it.
I think it’s fair to say that “Crimes and Misdemeanors” is Woody Allen’s most religious film. But is God present or absent in this movie? Perhaps that’s the wrong question. Instead, we should ask what the characters think, and how does that influence the choices they make in their lives? And even more importantly, by extension, what do you think and how will that determine the course of your life?
I don’t know if “Crimes and Misdemeanors” is the best film to contemplate to find the answer, but it’s certainly one of the best ones to help define the question.