Faint Hope-A Theological Interpretation of Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors

By Landry, David | Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview
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Faint Hope-A Theological Interpretation of Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors


Landry, David, Journal of Religion and Popular Culture


[1] Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen's eighteenth film as writer and director, was released in 1989 to mixed but generally positive reviews. It has since become the object of extended scholarly reflection in the realms of both philosophy and film criticism. To my knowledge, however, there has never been an article or a book chapter written in whole or in large part (1) that analyzes this film from a theological perspective. This is somewhat odd, given the proliferation of books about Religion/Theology and Film that have been published in recent years. (2) Allen is a major filmmaker and this is arguably his most consistently theological film. But it is perhaps not so surprising to those who have seen this film more than once and thought about it at any length. It is Allen's most theological film but it is also one of his most complex and elusive films, presenting an unrelentingly ambiguous moral universe that defies both easy categorization and straightforward interpretation. Allen himself seems to acknowledge that it is one of his most complicated films: "There are certain movies of mine that I call 'novels on film,' and Crimes and Misdemeanors is one of them, wherein a number of characters are being dissected and a number of stories are going on at the same time." (3) Perhaps no one has written extensively about this film because no one really knows what to do with it.

[2] On the one hand, it is rather obvious (at least on one level) that the film presents Allen's narrative refutation of what is known in theological and philosophical circles as the "divine justice" theodicy, the claim that moral behaviour is necessitated by the fact that God sees everything that humans do and arranges for the punishment of the wicked and the reward of the righteous. On the other hand, it is not so obvious what Allen intends to present as an alternative to this traditional religious understanding of the basis of morality. It is certainly possible to read the film as embracing moral relativism and nihilism as the natural alternatives to the discredited theory of divine justice. One of the only scholars to consider the film from a theological perspective, Robert K. Johnston, seems to read it this way: "Underlying these interwoven story lines is the conviction that life is amoral, however we might want it to be otherwise." (4) There is a considerable amount of evidence that supports this interpretation. However, there is an equal if not greater amount of evidence that undermines this reading, and there are also some elements that render problematic even the apparently safe conclusion that the film represents a simple refutation of divine justice. In the end, I will argue, the film is more hopeful than many of its interpreters seem to realize, although it is a thoroughly chastened and cautious hope that Allen holds out.

I. Divine Justice in Crimes and Misdemeanors

[3] Almost every major review of and article about Crimes and Misdemeanors recognizes the centrality of a scene that takes place near the middle of the film. One of the film's protagonists is an ophthalmologist named Judah Rosenthal. For two years prior to the beginning of the film's narrative time, Judah had been engaged in an adulterous affair with a woman named Dolores. As the film begins, Dolores is threatening to reveal the affair to Judah's wife, which Judah believes will certainly destroy his family. And Dolores also is aware of some financial misconduct on Judah's part that could cost him his wealth and career. After agonizing over the situation for some time, Judah comes to the conclusion that his only way out is to have Dolores murdered. He does this with the help of his brother Jack, who has underworld connections. After the deed is done, however, Judah is wracked with guilt. He calls himself a man of science who has always been a skeptic, but the idea of a vengeful God begins to loom in his imagination, to terrifying effect. During the dark night of Judah's soul, he is compelled by some inner force to visit the house in which he and Jack grew up as boys.

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