The National Catholic Review

Woody Allen’s latest film, “Match Point,” is probably one of the most explicitly atheistic films in the history of American cinema. It is also a vivid illustration of the nihilistic worldview that Allen has been presenting in most of his films for nearly 40 years. While God is absent from most American films, what distinguishes Allen’s work is that in his films the absence of God matters. It makes a difference in the lives of people. In fact, it makes the difference.

 

Much of Allen’s film work could be described as a combination of the humor of Bob Hope with the vision of Ingmar Bergman. Like Hope, Allen pokes fun at human failures and foibles, focusing on the seeming impossibility of a successful heterosexual relationship. The humor is almost always at the expense of his on-screen persona, as played either by himself or, in later films, by stand-ins as different as Mia Farrow, Kenneth Branagh and Will Farrell. At the same time, in Allen’s films there is no happy ending, no final fadeout in which a leading lady stand-in for the likes of Dorothy Lamour, Paulette Godard or Jane Russell succumbs to the charms, real or imaginary, of the inadequate hero. Also, unlike Hope or most any other American comedian, many of Allen’s jokes refer to the divine. Even in his early essays, short stories and plays, Woody’s wit found a source of laughter in the existence or nonexistence of God.

If his humor echoes Hope, Allen’s philosophical vision is pure Bergman. For close to 50 years the Swedish author/director, arguably the greatest talent in the history of cinema, has dramatized the impossibility of a successful love relationship because of the absence of divine love. From “The Seventh Seal” (1957) to “Saraband” (2004), Bergman’s creatures have failed to make meaningful contact with a divine creator or to love in a way that will give human life some significance in its journey toward death. In many films, such as “Seventh Seal,” “Winter Light” (1962) and “Fanny and Alexander” (1982), Bergman takes Christian images and symbols and secularizes them, removing the transcendental dimension and reducing them to a transitory, this-world reference. Thus in “The Magician” (1958), the “resurrection” is but an actor’s trick used to jolt an agnostic doctor. Likewise in “Seventh Seal,” the love of the “holy family”—Jof, Mia and their child—is beautiful and touching, but it does not point beyond to a divine presence. Bergman’s films offer fleeting moments of love but because of the absence of God, such moments will eventually be snuffed out by death. “Love and Death” (1976), Allen’s humorous homage to Bergman, sums up in its title their common vision.

In an interview with Frank Rich almost 30 years ago, Allen spoke about his vision of human existence:

 

The fundamental thing behind all motivation and all activity is the constant struggle against annihilation and against death. It’s absolutely stupefying in its terror, and it renders anyone’s accomplishments meaningless.... Until these issues are resolved within each person—religiously or psychologically or existentially—the social and political issues will never be resolved, except in a slapdash way.... People have to stop and think what their priorities are.

 

Since that interview at least three of Allen’s films have suggested a glimmer of hope. In “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986), Mickey Sachs (Allen) is obsessed with his own death. On the brink of despair, he wanders into a movie theater where the Marx Brothers’ classic “Duck Soup” (1933), is playing. While viewing the film he announces in a voiceover that because of the wonderful humor of Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo, he has decided to opt for the existence of God. It is a contemporary Pascalian wager: his experience watching the Marx Brothers makes believing in God’s existence a good bet.

In “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989), while at a wedding reception, filmmaker Cliff Stern (Allen) listens incredulously as Dr. Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) suggests to him a movie about a man who arranges for the murder of his mistress and lives happily ever after with his wife. Though Stern does not know that Judah’s tale is autobiographical, he is crushed by the thought that serious crime in this world could go unpunished by civil authorities or God, and that murderers could live guilt-free. However, Allen interjects into this scene a lovely shot of the faith-filled blind rabbi (Sam Waterston) dancing with his just-married daughter. It is one of the most hope-filled images in Allen’s work.

In “Alice” (1990) the title character, Alice (Mia Farrow), who was brought up Catholic, sees through the superficiality of her upper-Manhattan, plush lifestyle and the shallowness and deceit that characterize her husband’s relationship with her. Eventually, she finds fulfillment doing volunteer work in a poor neighborhood in Manhattan. As we watch Alice joyfully working with the poor, an acquaintance who cannot understand her decision comments, “It’s that Catholic streak inside her.”

There are no hope-filled images in “Match Point” that can outweigh or even balance images of people drifting aimlessly, sometimes riddled with guilt, but with no possibility, or perhaps even desire, for absolution. Whereas one scene in “Hannah and Her Sisters” has Mickey standing in the back of the church during a solemn high Mass, wistfully wishing he could believe, in “Match Point” there is no hint that anyone wishes for or even suspects any possible existence other than the totally secular lives they are leading.

Even so, as a priest-philosopher I find Allen’s films inspiring. What Allen sees about the human condition he sees deeply and expresses brilliantly—the fragility and finitude of human life, the frequent failures in life commitments, the self-centeredness and shallowness that try to pass as love. And like Ivan Karamazov or Friedrich Nietzsche, his films invite people to see the implications of nihilism. Placing before the audience a Kierkegaardian either/or, he sides with Dostoevsky and Flannery O’Connor: if there is no God, anything goes.

Shortly after seeing “Match Point” I came upon the following passage from then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: “Just as the believer knows himself to be constantly threatened by unbelief, which he must experience as a constant temptation, so for the unbeliever, faith remains a temptation and a threat to his apparently closed world. In short, there is no escape from the dilemma of being a man.” In a recent interview, again identifying himself as an atheist and looking back on his long career as a filmmaker, Allen commented that even if he does not make a film masterpiece equal to one of Bergman’s, it does not mean that he is losing his passport to paradise, because there is no paradise. “You understand that art doesn’t save you. It doesn’t save me. So then I think to myself, what’s the value?”

I agree completely. Movies do not provide salvation. But is that the final word? Many believe that the wonder and mystery of love point toward a possible salvation, toward a possible presence that is infinitely more than an absence. I hope he forgives me, but watching his films—even “Match Point”—I can’t help wondering whether Woody wonders the same.

The Rev. Robert E. Lauder, a priest of the Brooklyn Diocese, is professor of philosophy at St. John’s University, Jamaica, N.Y.

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John McCarthy | 2/23/2007 - 4:20pm
I commend you on four articles in the May 22 issue: first, Christopher Ruddy’s visionary article about Pope Benedict’s papacy; second, Dolores Leckey’s moving insights on how Pope Benedict has affected her life and ministry; third, the delightful tale by James Martin, S.J., of how he came to connect with Joan of Arc; and, finally, the magnificent overview of Woody Allen’s movies by Robert Lauder. All are memorable.

For me, these four articles contained something that I have found missing in recent issues. All four of them are positive, constructive, insightful and hopeful.

America—the nation as well as the magazine—is best served by articles such as these. Most of us, I believe, are tired of carping and grousing. We are looking for the light, not the darkness.