I had a vision the other night after seeing Love and Death. Woody Allen was a cheerleader for God's team. He couldn't make first string or even third string. Too puny. His voices wasn't golden or dulcet. He didn't look as grand as Billy Graham. So he became a cheerleader. Except his hurrahs weren't "Holy! Holy! Holy!" They were more like "Huh? Huh? Huh?" And then he did all kinds of irreverent things like saying the Apostles' Creed backwards. Generally, most religious people in the stands thought he was subversive. But God had the last laugh when he benched the team and put Woody on the field to carry the ball instead of the pom-poms.
Woody Allen has inherited the prophetic mantle from Lenny Bruce. He is a sophisticated comedian who knows a lot about what's rumbling through our collective unconscious. Some compare him to Mel Brooks but that's like comparing Clarabelle the Clown of the old "Howdy Doody Show" to Mort Sahl. They're not even in the same ballpark. Love and Death is Woody Allen's best effort to date. He has managed to infuse his Kafkian anxiety and his Kierkegaardian dread into a nonstop spoof on the Russian literary tradition of War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, and Fathers and Sons.
The setting is nineteenth-century Russia. Boris, who slept with the lights on until he was thirty, is about to be executed for a crime he did not commit. His life passes before our eyes a mix of joys and sorrows, mistakes and confusions, stupidities and wit, agony and a smidgen of ecstasy. A childhood in a large Russian family. Of course, he's the outsider, a lover of blintzes and mystical visions. He shares some fond moments with his cousin Sonja. While she talks of deep philosophical matters, he is smitten with love. But Death beckons him to the battlefront with quite a bit of urging from his patriotic family. Boris the "militant coward" doesn't want to go to war against Napoleon's armies. But he does and circumstantial heroism is conferred upon him. Home from the war, he weds Sonja. They then unsuccessfully try to carry out an assassination of Napoleon. Boris winds up in prison.
Writer and director Allen has pulled out all the stops here. The gag spectrum is comprehensive with a raggle-taggle of one-liners ("Violence is justified in the service of mankind. Who said that? Attila the Hun."); stylized parodies (a shot of two women's faces á la Bergman's Persona); slapstick (a fast paced bottle-on-the-head sequence that is delightfully light and funny); choice lunacies (a convention of village idiots in Minsk); sexual zappers (she: "You're the greatest lover I've ever had." He: "I practice when I'm alone."); and brisk satire (Boris does a witty drama review of the Russian army's playlet about venereal disease that is staged for the soldiers before their furlough).
Allen stomps all over Philosophy, Duty, Honor all the games we play to pretend we're important. Diane Keaton as Sonja turns out to be a natural comedienne with near perfect timing and facial expression. She holds her own with the frenetic Woody. Ghislain Cloquet's cinematography perfectly catches the sweep of events in a jumping-jack plot. Olga Georges-Picot is humorous as a carnal countess, and James Tolkan is absurd as Napoleon.
When Boris tells us at the end of Love and Death what he has learned about life we are bemused to hear that God is an underachiever, that the mind is great but the body has all the fun, and that death is somewhat of a downer. These lessons have all the zany logic of the one who said "The first shall be last and the last shall be first."