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When I think about Passover on film, there are two different types of stories. The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt are two diverse examples of realizations of the Passover story, which each picked up one Oscar apiece, for Best Visual Effects and Best Original Song, respectively. Remembering the exodus is a crucial part of the Passover seder, but seeing the Passover seder on screen can be compelling too. It didn’t win any of its three Oscar bids, but Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors uses its Passover seder to excellent dramatic effect.
Woody Allen got his Oscar start in 1977 in a big way, winning Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for Annie Hall and earning his one and only Best Actor nomination. His film also won Best Picture. Annie Hall already represented a departure from Allen’s sillier previous works, and the following year he netted Best Director and Best Original Screenplay bids for the even more serious Interiors. By the time Crimes and Misdemeanors was released, in 1989, Allen had picked up an additional seven nominations and one win, for penning the script to Hannah and Her Sisters.
Crimes and Misdemeanors, like all Allen films, presents a charismatic, conflicted individual at its center, one who is moderately successful but hardly happy enough to stay monogamous. The film splits its time between that thread and a far more comic one, which features Allen as a squirrely filmmaker and Alan Alda as his pretentious brother-in-law. In the primary plotline, Martin Landau, who scored a second consecutive Oscar nomination for this role, stars as Judah Rosenthal, an ophthalmologist who has the typical Allen problem of being both married and in another committed relationship. When Anjelica Huston’s mistress informs Judah that she plans on telling his wife, he consults two future Law and Order stars, Sam Waterston’s rabbi and Jerry Orbach’s brother, and decides to have her killed.
This sharp and dramatic event prompts Judah to contemplate the severity and impact of his actions. The film’s best scene finds Judah wandering back to his childhood home and asking its new owner for a few moments to look around. After a minute, Judah conjures up a Passover seder he remembers, where his father struggles to lead a prayer-filled service, only to be interrupted constantly by the naysayers in his family. Judah listens as his father is accused of exhausting “mumbo-jumbo” and superstitions, and is told that he is afraid that, if he does not obey the rules, God will punish him. He replies that God punishes only the wicked, which prompts Judah to become a living character in his own memory, asking what happens if a man commits a crime, and if he kills. “One way or another, he’ll be punished,” his father tells him. When he is told that murder is murder, Judah responds in shock, “Who said anything about murder?” His aunt concludes, ultimately, that he will be fine if he can do it and get away with it and not be bothered by it. The scene ends as Judah’s father defends his convictions, saying that, even if all his faith is wrong, he’ll still have a better life than those who doubt.
This philosophical and religious discussion represents a sincere enhancement over the admittedly hilarious “D’Jew” obsession Allen’s character Alvy Singer has in Annie Hall. At another point in that classic film, Alvy has dinner with his Christian girlfriend’s family and imagines himself perceived in Hasidic garb by her anti-Semitic grandmother, while the tranquility of that meal is compared with a loud and boisterous Singer family dinner. What Crimes and Misdemeanors represents is a somber, important investigation into the Judaism that has helped to shape Judah’s life, and comes back to him only when he has done something truly immoral. Right before a holiday so centered around food, this particular meal is excellent food for thought.