The Coen brothers aren't sure whether their latest movie is a comedy or a tragedy – that is for the viewers to figure out.
"We don't even think about it in those terms," Ethan Coen said Thursday, as he and his brother Joel were presenting "A Serious Man" at the Rome Film Festival.
The Coen brothers have a history of making quirky, genre-defying movies, from the acclaimed surreal Hollywood tale "Barton Fink" to the darkly funny "Fargo."
Their latest release is a look back at their own roots. The film follows physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) as his life in a predominately Jewish suburb of Minneapolis unravels, both at home and professionally.
"Once you get past a certain point you're just thinking how to be true to the story," Ethan Coen said, "what seems appropriate for the story as opposed to what will make people laugh or whether people will take it as a tragedy or a comedy."
"I'm kind of pleased that there are different reactions in terms of people laughing or not," he said. "What they sort of make of it is up to them."
The setting – a Midwest Jewish community in the 1960s – is familiar to the Coen brothers, who most recently had directed the Oscar-winning crime thriller "No Country for Old Men" and the spy comedy "Burn After Reading."
'Jews are very sensitive'
But the movie is not an autobiography. Events are made up, the filmmakers say, and the characters are combinations of people they knew growing up in Minnesota.
The Coen brothers also said they were pleasantly surprised at the positive reaction of Jews when "A Serious Man" opened in the United States earlier this month.
"They're very sensitive (as) to how they're portrayed in the media," Joel Coen said, referring especially to American Jews. There was concern "that some of those sensitivities may be rubbed the wrong way."
"But we were actually pleasantly surprised. Most of the reaction in the United States from the Jewish community was very positive," he said, though he added the positive reception was not "monolithic."
The movie was shown out of competition at the Rome festival, which wraps Friday with the award ceremony. Movies in the running for best picture include Jason Reitman's comic drama "Up in the Air" starring George Clooney and the war tale "Triage" by Danis Tanovic, starring Colin Farrell.