The new film “A Serious Man,” by Joel and Ethan Coen — long-rumored to be their most serious, their most autobiographical, and their most overtly Jewish project yet — opens with a brief scene set in a Yiddish-speaking shtetl, presumably a few hundred years ago. A husband tells his wife of his misfortunes on the way home: his wagon broke, and the only thing that saved him was the sudden appearance of a distinguished Torah scholar, who helped him fix it.
Upon hearing this, the wife looks at the husband in horror: the Torah scholar he named has been dead for three years. The husband returns her horror. The husband invited the scholar to visit them.
When the scholar shows up (a fabulous bearded-and-payosed Fyvush Finkel, the lawyer from Picket Fences, and the only one of the three who speaks Yiddish like he means it), the wife banishes him, claiming he’s a dybbuk, and — spoiler alert — stabs him in the chest. He doesn’t immediately start to bleed, and the wife nods in satisfaction. After a few minutes, though, bloodstains appear below his shirt. The Torah scholar shrugs, never actually answering the question of whether or not he’s mortal, and wanders out into the snow to die.
And then the film starts. The opening titles roll, the era in which the rest of the film takes place is established — the American Midwest in the 1960s, that is — and neither the dybbuk-rabbi, the shtetl, or the Yiddish language appears for the rest of the film.
Judaism is the religion of questioning. In Christianity, the rules are pretty simple: Accept Jesus, and you’re saved. In Judaism, our rulebook is called the Talmud. It’s 3,000 pages long, it’s filled with complex debates that are all replies to relatively straightforward questions — and the most maddening part is, three quarters of the time, there are no direct answers. The Talmud is the worst kind of mystery: the kind that finishes with an open-ended conclusion.
Like the opening of A Serious Man, its finale, and most of what comes in between, is shrouded in questions. The tale itself is a curious pastiche of retro 1970s retro-Philip Roth storytelling and contemporary 1990s Michael Chabon-type storytelling. It’s sufficiently postmodern that it doesn’t feel the need to close up all (or, indeed, any) of the problems it poses, but it examines those problems with thoroughness, clearness, and utter convincing-ness.