Image credit: Sony Pictures Classics

As part of my training for the priesthood, I was asked to learn different thinkers’ arguments for the existence of God. And I was surprised to find that many of the arguments for the existence of God seemed kind of weak. Sure, the universe is filled with wonders, and the chances of it all being just dumb luck seem infinitesimal. Yet that’s not the same as impossible. The chances of winning the lottery are also almost nil, but every day someone does. 

And if we’re going to point to the grandeur of life as evidence for the existence of God, what do we do with the brutal human realities of suffering and death? Why should faith win out in the face of the horrors of so many people’s day-to-day existences?

There’s something deeply dismissive about some of the responses to disbelief, a refusal to truly grapple with the points raised that smacks more of fear than faith. To believe is not to ignore that which challenges our belief, but to wrestle with what it reveals to us, like Jacob and his mysterious angel in the night. 

At the heart of the new Sigmund Freud-meets-C. S. Lewis fantasia, Freud’s Last Session lies one such earth-shaking encounter. I say “fantasia”: Shortly before his suicide in 1939, Sigmund Freud supposedly met with a young Oxford don. Who that was or whether it even happened is not known for certain, but it just so happens that C. S. Lewis was at Oxford at the time and he had recently published a satire of The Pilgrim’s Progress which, in part, parodied Freud. So who knows, the film speculates, maybe it was him.

Freud had this supposed meeting just after the United Kingdom declared war on Nazi Germany. Having barely escaped from the Nazis himself, and now suffering from a debilitating oral cancer that he had learned was fatal, Freud was all too aware of the presence of evil and suffering in the world. For him, the only real question is whether to proceed with courage or cowardice. “It seems to me we’ve never matured enough to face the terror of being alone in the dark,” he tells Lewis. God is the night light we construct to feel safe.

Having lost his mother as a child and having been deeply traumatized by the horrors of World War I, Lewis can in many ways sympathize with Freud’s plight. But at many times the film has more of a college debate quality, each side wheeling out clever if standard arguments without much emotional depth behind them. As co-written by playwright Mark St. Germain and director Matthew Brown, and performed by Anthony Hopkins (Freud) and Matthew Goode (Lewis), there’s often a pompous male academic energy to the proceedings.

But when the script allows the characters’ arguments to come from more personal places, it sings (and sears). Freud eventually reveals to Lewis that he lost a daughter and then a grandson to illness. “I wish cancer had eaten into my brain instead of my cheek and my jaw, so that I could hallucinate God and seek my bloody vengeance on him,” he says with terrifying rage. 

Meanwhile, for as confident as Lewis in his belief—to the point of being pretty hard to like, honestly—in the end he acknowledges that God “shatters” his thinking over and over again: “I feel the world is crowded with him. He’s everywhere incognito. And his incognito is so very hard to penetrate. The real struggle is to keep trying. To come awake, to stay awake.”

Sigmund Freud’s sofa. (Image credit: Robert Huffstutter/Wikimedia Commons)

More often than not what’s really thrilling about Freud’s Last Session is watching Hopkins’s Freud enumerate and excoriate the tenets of religious belief. Having been taught certain matters are meant to simply be taken “on faith,” there is a natural tendency within many Christians to consider certain questions off limits. To ask God to render an account for the reality he has created takes on the character of a sinful act, perhaps even somehow a dangerous one. 

Freud lacks any such baggage, and to watch him vent his spleen without fear or recrimination feels transgressive, and also liberating. Of course our questions are not inappropriate. The real faith is to be discovered in asking them, not suppressing them. 

A number of experiences link Lewis and Freud: complicated relationships with their fathers and the women of their lives; profound moments of loss. But, as conceived by St. Germain and Brown, the two also share a profound fascination for the woods. For Lewis, a toy forest made of moss, stones, and twigs given to him by his brother as a child was an entrance into a whole other world. “It created a yearning I’d never felt before,” he told Freud. He would come to name that longing “joy,” and understand it as his first taste of the desire for God. 

For his part, Freud tells Lewis of once running off the path as a child and into a forest on his own. Where another child might be scared, Freud felt relieved: “Finally I was alone in those dark woods to which I was always drawn, where I was most at peace with myself and with the world.”

From the time that we’re children we populate the darker corners of our lives with monsters to represent how vulnerable we feel there, and work hard to avoid them. And yet, Freud’s Last Session asks regarding that subterranean terror we feel before questions we cannot answer or tragedies we think we cannot bear: What if it is not a monster, or not simply one? What if it is also a gift?

Jim McDermott is a freelance writer based in New York City.