Moral Conundrums

By Tim Winterstein

What a tangled web we weave when we really, really want something. It’s a web that is woven inside a small Italian cafe called The Place, which is also the name of an engrossing film.

There were at least two Newport Beach Film Festival movies that revolved around moral or ethical conundrums, the ways we get ourselves into them, and the ways we try to get out. The Korean film A Day forces its three central characters to try to make right their past sins by reliving the same day over and over—a much more intense Groundhog Day.

But The Place (a film adaptation of a 2011–12 American television show, which I cannot find online anywhere) is a fascinating examination of free will, compulsion, desire, and what we’re willing to do to get what we want. There is a man who always sits at the same table in the same cafe. If you want something to happen (a happy marriage, a healthy child, to be more beautiful, or to feel close to God again), you visit this man. To nearly everything, he says, “It’s doable.” Then he looks in his notebook and tells you to do something. If you do it, you get what you want.

The man doesn’t try to convince you whether to do the thing. He simply tells you what the price of your desire is. And the price is often deeply immoral or criminal. You want your husband’s dementia to be reversed? Plant a bomb and detonate it where a large number of people will die. You want a happy marriage? Break up someone else’s. You want beauty? Steal this amount of money.

But what keeps The Place from simply being an interesting philosophical thought experiment where each person has to confront what lies within is that the characters quickly realize that they are not the only moral agents. By the end, all of the characters are tied together in one way or another, and they realize there’s no such thing as an isolated act confined to their own inner struggle over right and wrong. The web grows, and some of the people expand it beyond even what the man told them to do.

Some of the people believe he’s the devil, trying to get them to destroy and harm. The bomb-making woman says that he is a monster, and he replies that he simply feeds the real monsters. So The Place takes seriously human agency and sin. There is no coercion or force acting externally on the people to do the things the man assigns to them. The thing that compels them is the strength of their desire for what they want. And finally, each viewer is forced to wonder how far he or she would go to get something, if the possibility were in reach. For most of the characters, their desire is stronger than their initial revulsion.

Or perhaps he’s a certain kind of capricious and amoral god, commanding people to carry out actions that appear to have no underlying logic. Although some people might see in the man this kind of god (or see in God this sort of moral command), he is clearly not free as a god would be. He is bound to the book, to the table, to the café, to the give-and-take of action and granted request.

Further, the man claims no agency or responsibility for what is in the book. He makes no claim to be the one behind the creation of the book or its tasks, and this angers or shocks some of the people who come to him. Some want him to give them different tasks. Some are immediately prepared to do what is asked. But each person has to take responsibility for his or her own actions, and they are the ones who have to live with whether they carry out the assignment or not.

Although some of the people get what they want, the stream of people who come into the cafe seems never ending. Towards the end, the man tells the waitress that he is tired of hearing the ills of the world. And then the question is turned toward the man: What is it that he wants, and what will he do to get it? Is it doable?

I don’t know if The Place is going to be released in the U.S., but if you have a chance to see it, it is definitely worth watching.