Where do we get our ideas on morality? I don’t mean just the biggies. Thou shalt not kill. I mean all the little decisions. You hit a fender in a parking lot. Do you leave a note? You get money that’s not coming to you. Do you give it back? Do you act out of selfish pride and not out of love? All the everyday stuff. Do we cheat or lie if it’s in self-interest? We’re human, we’re not saints. And if it means comfort, can we live with a prickly conscience?
Our churches and synagogues and mosques preach from the pulpit. Serious playwrights take up thorny questions of moral obligation: Tennessee Williams in Glass Menagerie asks: Is man obligated to a dependent family even if it means giving up his life? Arthur Miller in All Our Sons asks, do you make a profit during the war when you think it’s someone else’s son who may pay the price but not yours?
And once in a while a film comes out that tackles a moral issue. Take Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors -- a good man, a responsible man, gets himself into a tight situation because he’s made one mistake in a good life: he had an affair. And now she is threatening to expose him, ruin his family and his life’s work. He is trapped, and he has one choice of escape. He has her killed. Can he actually go free without some sort of punishment?
In The End of the Affair, Julianne Moore has a passionate love affair with Ralph Fiennes, the one true love of her life. During an air raid, a bomb falls. She sees her lover lying there, dead, and she cries out to God: Save his life and I’ll give him up! And in fact he survives. Is she right to pay her obligation to God and ruin her only hope of happiness?
The films we see reflect the moral times we live in. When Mr. Smith went to Washington, there were bad guys and good guys. Absolutes. Now everything is relative. Dexter kills bad guys. Has he the right? Walter White (on the wonderfully written Breaking Bad) needs money for his family’s survival, so he cooks meth which may harm countless lives. And if he’s so evil, does he get his punishment? Jesse, his assistant, has already been chastened by conscience. We’re waiting to see what happens to Walter.
So here is the irony of two excellent foreign films, Israel’s Footnote and Iran’s A Separation. Both countries are politically at each other’s throats. Yet these are the films that ask hard moral questions, one based on the Talmud, a Jewish text that explores moral issues, and the other on the Koran.
In A Separation, a wife has a chance to escape repressive Iran and move to a more liberal government where her daughter can have a better chance at life. But the daughter refuses to leave, hoping that her reluctance will bring her parents together.
Her father is obligated to care for the Alzheimer grandfather. Morally he cannot desert the old man. His wife gone, he hires a woman to care for the grandfather when he’s away. The housekeeper has an emergency, ties the old man to the bed while she’s gone. The husband discovers what she’s done and fires the woman.
But he also accuses her of stealing. This she cannot tolerate. Stealing is a sin! He pushes her out of the apartment. She is pregnant and now she claims that the push caused her miscarriage.
If he actually knew that she was pregnant, he would be liable for prison. To save himself, he claims that he didn’t know. The daughter suspects that the father is lying…which to her is a grievous sin.
The servant also knows that her miscarriage was caused by something else, so she also has lied.
The woman is offered a money settlement if she will swear on the Koran that the push caused the death of their baby. She needs the money desperately. But she cannot lie. The father tells his daughter that if she wants him to tell the truth, he will do it even if it means prison.
At the crux of their tragic tangle is a law of the Book. A fascinating dilemma.
In Footnote, the protagonists are interpreters of the Talmud. The father is a pure research scholar who has found a flaw in the current interpretation and has spent a lifetime proving it. His son is a popularizer, interpreting meaning for the public, but not the pure researcher that his father might admire. Another scholar accidentally finds the proof, publishes his finding, destroying the father’s life work.
The book they study is the Talmud, which explains the obligation of a father to a son. The son makes a sacrifice for the father. The father discredits the son. And more than that, all of these prize-seekers selfishly devote their lives to interpreting a book, which is supposed to teach them their moral obligations. They revere the words, ignore the meaning.
Wonderful that in harsh political times, two filmmakers are willing to tackle hard issues and present them with such appeal and emotional strength.
A Separation found support during Oscar nominations. Footnote seems to have small audiences, but great critical support. Two films, two holy books…an irony and yet a sense that through the arts perhaps heads of nations will be forced to ask questions of themselves and speak with words and images rather than with swords.
Sony Pictures Classic's 'A Separation' is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD, while 'Footnote' is showing in select theaters now.