Staged much like a play, “God on Trial” uses an unconfirmed story — that doomed Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz put God on trial for abandoning them — as the jumping-off point for a thoughtful if perhaps unavoidably claustrophobic rumination on religion. At its core is the age-old question of how an omnipotent deity could countenance atrocities and suffering. As written by Frank Cottrell Boyce (“Welcome to Sarajevo”), it’s bracing as an intellectual exercise but somewhat half-baked as drama — although just the kind of effort from “Masterpiece,” to its credit, that U.S. audiences aren’t apt to find elsewhere.
The first-rate cast includes Stellan Skarsgard, Stephen Dillane (fresh off “John Adams”), Antony Sher, Rupert Graves and Dominic Cooper as inmates who dare ask whether God has broken his covenant with the Jewish people. It is, clearly, a “trial” to help maintain their humanity in the face of all-consuming inhumanity — keeping their minds sharp as their bodies suffer.
The arguments they raise are familiar ones but especially powerful in this context. Is the Holocaust a divine punishment — and if so, Skarsgard’s character Baumgarten muses, “What crime could justify a punishment like this?” Is human free will an explanation? And “If He can do all things,” as another prisoner puts it, “why can’t he purify his people without gassing them?”
In the course of the testimony, several rise to God’s defense, addressing a trio of judges whose verdict is ultimately treated as an afterthought. It’s rather the discussion — as part of the struggle to survive, to maintain sanity — that’s important. (Although described as an original story, author Elie Wiesel explored similar terrain in “The Trial of God,” though there the “trial” follows a pogrom against the Jews in the 17th century.)
Not surprisingly, the tone is unrelentingly grim; director Andy de Emmony and cinematographer Wojciech Szepel shot the piece (in Glasgow) in an appropriately dreary, washed-out manner. It’s hard to escape, though, that this experience feels more ideally suited to the theater, with Boyce devoting such scant time to introducing his characters that they serve as little more than the writer’s surrogates — delivering monologues contemplating how faith can be reconciled with such abominable evil.
Given the dearth of sober theological discussion in the mainstream media, the premise alone merits some celebration. Yet after weighing all the evidence, this favorable judgment on behalf of “God on Trial” falls somewhat short of a unanimous decision.