Inside Llewyn Davis + Diary of a Country Priest + A Serious Man

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Double feature: I’m late to the party, but I saw “Inside Llewyn Davis” about a week ago and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. And the more I think about it, the richer an achievement it seems to become.

For it is an achievement when a film is so tonally/aesthetically coherent and yet contains so much – not only in the story it actually tells, but also in the possibilities that the narrative could have taken. Like a panoramic picture that was arbitrarily cropped, it spreads backward to the labor-conscious ’30s and ’40s, forward to the Dylan ’60s, and diagonally to the exit that Davis almost takes, but speeds past instead.

In its existential outlook, “Inside Llewyn Davis” has many parallels to “A Serious Man,” an earlier film by the same hand(s). These two Coen brothers movies – both serious, at times ominous – each advance a theory about the “joke” of life, embodied by the arcs of their respective protagonists.

In “A Serious Man,” the joke of existence is a somewhat Kafka-esque one: that the universe is waiting for us to act in our defense, but we don’t know it, nor would we know how to advance our case if we did. “Inside Llewyn Davis” presents a variation on the theme.  Its hero tries the best he can to advance his case…but still doesn’t get anywhere, in an unsympathetic universe with skewed values and only temporary – never lasting – refuge.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” and “A Serious Man” can also serve as apt bookends for the remarkable “Diary of a Country Priest,” a film of trembling purity and anguished earnestness. “Diary of a Country Priest”‘s links to “A Serious Man” are fairly obvious: both films grapple with mystery, and thus end up imbued with the quality themselves. Both concern bourgeois characters seeking guidance from on high, both feature scenes in “Sunday school,” and neither over-explicates its conclusions.

The links between “Diary of a Country Priest” and “Inside Llewyn Davis” might be less immediately apparent, but are nonetheless resonant. To begin with, the protagonists of both films are about the same age, both struggling to pursue their chosen calling in life, and both coming to terms with the world as it is rather than as they want it to be.  Moreover, both end on notes of radiance – in the former film, the radiance of grace; in the latter, that of undeniable brilliance (in the form of a shadowy cameo.)

In fact, there is something about the way the plot concerns of “inside Llewyn Davis” simultaneously re-animate and are themselves incarnated by the old folk songs on its soundtrack that is echoed by the other two films’ bridging of ancient texts and modern lives.

For a marathon: The tonal and narrative similarities between “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “Five Easy Pieces” – road trips, burdensome musical talent, unsentimental but poignant family visits – would make for a compellingly dour double feature. The (anti)-hero of each film is a drifter caught between lyricism and scorn, decency and wolfishness, teetering on the verge of permanent bitterness.

For more in the way of musical rivalries, the simultaneous inanities and wisdoms of popular taste, and the ineluctable chasm between genius and everything else, follow up “Inside Llewyn Davis” with a viewing of the always thrilling “Amadeus.”

“A Serious Man” is an interesting case study in uncharitable but probably affectionate treatment of one’s co-religionists. For a more raucous example of the same, check out “Sallah Shabati.”

In spirit and content, “Diary of a Country Priest” has a lot in common with the luminous “Il Posto.” In each film, a baby-faced young man accommodates himself to the realities of the adult world in an absorptive, minimally judgmental fashion that flickers between passive and peaceful, without ever being resigned.

(Creative Commons licensed original images courtesy of “podchef,” “khrawlings,” and “Tavallai” at Flickr)

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