COMMENTARY: Disturbing morality tale raises troubling ethical questions

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c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Rabbi A. James Rudin is the national interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee.)

UNDATED _ Woody Allen’s 1989 film”Crimes and Misdemeanors”was on cable TV recently. Despite its comedic aspects, the movie is one of the most disturbing morality tales to emerge from contemporary popular culture.

Because of this, I strongly urge that”Crimes and Misdemeanors”become required viewing for future rabbis, priests, and ministers.

The film raises many troubling ethical questions faced by every human being. Can we get away with murder without punishment or guilt? Why do louses seem to prosper both financially and romantically? And most important of all, is there a moral order to our world, or does it exist without any accountability and retribution?

The film has two plots. First, a happily married, socially prominent ophthalmologist schemes to murder his mistress, who has threatened to disclose their sordid two-year affair to the doctor’s trusting and loving family. If that happens, the doctor’s carefully constructed life, status and power will be destroyed.

Second, a documentary filmmaker and a seductive, rich movie director compete for the affections of the same woman. It is the classic battle between the downtrodden artist who keeps pure culture alive and the tainted vulgarian who has sold out to the system.

The challenge in”Crimes and Misdemeanors”is that in the film evil triumphs over good. The highly respected eye doctor arranges for the murder of his mistress, yet it’s clear the hired killer and the doctor will never be caught for the crime. In the other story line, the adored woman ends up with the slick, ego-maniacal director, not with the authentic artist.

But Allen, who wrote, directed, and starred in the film, has more to say to us than merely depicting an unsolved murder and unrequited love. His screenplay and visual elements are pungent, even painful.

Although the lustful physician remembers a religious teaching of his father _”The eyes of God are always on you”_ it takes practically no effort for him to contract a deadly hitman to kill off his mistress. After the murder, the doctor quickly sheds any sense of guilt, and even remarks that the”sun comes up each morning.”His life of privilege and position continue, and he emerges spiritually and psychologically untroubled by his crime.

While God’s eyes may be on the evil doctor, it no longer matters to him. What is important is that an inconvenience _ albeit a human being _ has been removed so he can continue his life of serenity.

As for the artistic filmmaker, he loses in two ways. Not only does he lose his potential soul mate to the swarmy director, but at the film’s end his wife, too, leaves him for another man.

One of the central characters in”Crimes and Misdemeanors”is a love-filled, compassionate rabbi. So far so good. But in a bizarre twist in the film’s”eyes”theme, Allen has made the gifted rabbi blind.

Perhaps the best known scene in the film is a flashback, when the doctor, touched by guilt and nostalgia, remembers a childhood Passover Seder just after World War II. But even through the mist of fond memory and a yearning to recapture the past, Allen is unrelenting in presenting his troubling view.

The doctor’s father, a devout believer, is savagely ridiculed by his relatives, who bitterly complain that God was totally absent during the Holocaust when 6 million Jews were murdered.

One of the Seder guests declares the abandonment of the Jews is the real”truth,”and it is a choice between”truth and God.”The doctor’s father angrily replies that if it comes down to such a choice, he will choose God.

In”Crimes and Misdemeanors,”Allen believes truth and God are incompatible, and he clearly sides with his cruel truth and not with God, who demands moral order.

In Allen’s universe, the murderous doctor escapes punishment, 6 million innocent people were murdered in the Holocaust, pure art loses to sham and superficiality, and the bearer of a religious tradition is blind.

Many of today’s films depict devastating natural disasters, and are hastily dismissed as shock entertainment, not to be taken seriously. But”Crimes and Misdemeanors”is a real disaster film because it describes the annihilation of moral order. It is a film that must be taken seriously.


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