Saturday, March 28, 2015

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

I recently watched Woody Allen's great movie Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) for my Theology and Film class. It contains much fascinating discussion on the topics of the existence of God, evil, ultimate justice, morality, the meaning of life, sexuality, and much more.

The story is about an ophthalmologist who is trying to get out of an affair, when his mistress threatens to tell his wife about everything. He struggles with the possibility of having his criminal brother arrange a murder, wondering if such a thing can be done. He was raised a Jew but rejected religion in his youth; yet now and again, his father's words haunt him: The eyes of God are on us always. He gives in and has the murder arranged. He is stricken by guilt for some time, but after a few months pass, he sees that nothing will come of it. He has gotten away with it, or so it seems to him. So he goes on and lives his life, rationalizing and doing what he can to continue living in the world with as little pain to himself as possible.

The philosophy of the film is quite bleak. God doesn't exist; human beings are mostly selfish, desperate, needy creatures who will suck the life out of one another in order to stay alive; one's moral sense may mean nothing in light of the originless, destinationless state of the world. The murderer gets away with it -- he refused to take responsibility for his sins when his mistress threatened to spill the beans, and he refuses to take responsibility after the murder had been committed. And that's the way things go.

From the point of view of philosophy, I think the nihilism of the film is indefensible, and at times the arguments are puerile. The "protagonist" perceives that if he was not punished right away by God for his murder, it must be because there is no God. Of course, the alternative is that God gives him the opportunity, this side of the grave, to repent, whereas there is a punishment fixed for him in the afterlife. Yet he finds himself hardened in his unwillingness to confess and make right, as much as is within his powers. Perhaps in this way God destines him to punishment: because he has chosen the way of unrepentance, now there is no more forgiveness this side of the grave, but only an inevitable punishment and regret.

Of course, Allen would respond: we don't know anything about any afterlife; if there is to be justice, it ought to be justice here and now. But Allen addresses Judaism, for which resurrection is a hope grounded in the empirically underdetermined conviction of God's justice. I am not a Jew but a Christian, who believe in the apostolic testimony about Christ's resurrection. This Jesus of Nazareth, whom the Judeans put to death, was raised by God from the dead, and he will judge the world. This much he tells us himself. His resurrection is a proof of the victory of life over death, justice and goodness over nihilism. But Allen doesn't address Christianity, because he doesn't know it; at most, "Christ" is an exasperated exclamation in the mouth of a character or two in the film.

At the very least, I commend Woody Allen for seeing that a world without God is a cesspool. That is what the "protagonist" says, at one point when he is overwhelmed by guilt: I believe in God, Miriam. I know it. Because without God, the world is a cesspool. That is absolutely right. Without God, there are only immoral human beings, draining the life out of one another in selfish egoism.