Woody Allen keeps telling us God is dead, but he also keeps compulsively burying him.
For about three-quarters of his almost 40-year career, Allen has explored existential questions regarding the question of God’s existence or nonexistence and its implications for the meaning of life or its meaninglessness. Allen’s latest such film, “Magic in the Moonlight” starring Colin Firth and Emma Stone, was recently released on home video.
Although his atheism was touched on in earlier films, Allen first explored these themes with a vengeance in his 1975 film “Love and Death,” a satire of Russian literature by way of European art film, with overtones of Dostoyevsky and Ingmar Bergman.
Setting the tone for his subsequent films, “Love and Death” essentially converged with various themes in Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” and Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” (1957) by suggesting that if God does not exist, life is empty and moral questions are meaningless. “What if there is no God?” Allen’s character Boris frets. “What if we’re just a bunch of absurd people who are running around with no rhyme or reason?”
“If there is no God, then life has no meaning,” replies Diane Keaton’s Sonja. “Why go on living? Why not just kill yourself?”
“Well, let’s not get hysterical,” Boris responds with typically Allenesque diffidence. “I could be wrong. I’d hate to blow my brains out and then read in the papers they found something.”
Allen returned to these themes in “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989), possibly his most existentially serious film, and his bleakest. Martin Landau plays a wealthy ophthalmologist named Judah Rosenthal whose respectable, amiable persona masks a darker, purely selfish reality. A longtime philanderer, Judah is ultimately driven to have his mistress murdered to prevent her from revealing his various indiscretions, financial as well as sexual.
For a time, Judah is haunted by an intolerable sense of his own guilt in God’s eyes, of having gone against the fabric of existence itself. But then he turns a corner and finds that the sun is shining and he has gotten away with it — and that he can live with this after all.
Interwoven with this story is a farcical, mostly unrelated tale involving Allen as an independent filmmaker and Alan Alda as a cretinous television producer. Allen later came to feel that this subplot detracts from the more serious central story, and attempted to correct this artistic misstep in “Match Point” (2005), starring Scarlett Johansson and Jonathan Rhys-Myers.
“Match Point” reprises the themes of infidelity, fear of exposure, and murder, compounding them with a brilliant plot twist in which chance, and therefore God, is given a golden opportunity to punish Rhys-Myers’ character Chris for his sins. Instead, the very twist of fate that should have condemned Chris winds up exonerating him.
On paper, it’s a pure distillation of the existential heart of “Crimes and Misdemeanors” — except that what’s missing is precisely the earlier film’s tortured existential conflict. Judah Rosenthal writhed under the burden of guilt and divine displeasure until he arrived at the liberation of nihilism. Chris is a pure narcissist from the outset, with no religion or even religious baggage to lose and no similar struggle on the path to nihilistic complacency. A late scene in which Chris calmly ponders the existential implications of his own actions comes out of nowhere, and lacks the urgency and angst of Judah’s struggles. It’s a film with a great twist, but no soul.
Allen’s latest, “Magic in the Moonlight,” continues this downward trajectory. Firth’s character Stanley is a supercilious atheist outspokenly convinced of the emptiness of the universe and the pointlessness of human existence. A rough contemporary and peer of Harry Houdini, Stanley is a stage magician with a side line in debunking spiritualists, but finds his skepticism shaken by the seemingly inexplicable psychic displays of Stone’s young American mystic.
Unlike “Match Point,” “Magic in the Moonlight” is a movie with no twists and no surprises. As Allen’s latest cinematic avatar, Stanley is a nihilistic jerk, but also, tellingly, a brilliant showman who sees through everyone and everything, including God. If his skepticism is shaken, it’s only a speed bump on his way to becoming that insufferable guy at a party who tells you he’s never wrong, except that one time when he mistakenly thought he was.
If Allen ever felt Judah’s burning angst and conflict over the prospect of the emptiness of a universe without God, to all appearances it seems that particular fire in his soul has long since been extinguished. Yet he can’t stop raking through the cold ashes, as if searching for a spark that’s no longer there. Would he be happy to find a spark? Or does he just want to keep reliving the ritual of extinguishing it?