A Serious Film
If God rests in the details, Jewish filmmakers tend toward heresy. When I heard that the new Coen brothers movie opened with a short sequence in Yiddish, I expected the usual sloppy shtick, with comedy as the excuse for ignorance. But the Yiddish of the opening sequence of A Serious Man is actually hyper-correct, and the first fade-in, of a bearded man making his way through a snow-bound street, resembles a Solomon Yudovin linocut—Yudovin having produced much sparer and darker images of Russian Jewish life than his contemporary Marc Chagall. It is the first of many surprises to be mined from this fascinating film.
The traveler in the snow has invited into his home a fellow Jew who helped him on the road. He feels blessed by this miracle of intervention, the more so as the stranger happens to know his wife. However, the wife, who had previously learned of the man’s death, is convinced that this benefactor is a reincarnated evil spirit, and she tests his reality with an ice pick. The bleeding victim exits the house before we see him die, leaving husband and wife equally convinced that the other was dangerously misguided and setting up the movie’s premise that we may as well “accept the mystery.”
About the Author
Ruth R. Wisse is the Martin Peretz professor of Yiddish and professor of comparative literature at Harvard. She is the author most recently of Jews and Power (Nextbook/Schocken).