Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis both lived in England when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared war on Germany in 1939. Freud had recently left Nazi-controlled Austria with his family and was staying in London. Lewis, then at Oxford, was coming to prominence as a writer and theologian with the publication of The Pilgrim’s Regress and Out of the Silent Planet.

No record exists of the two men having ever met. But what if they had?

A new film, Freud’s Last Session—directed by Matthew Brown, adapted from a play of the same name by Mark St. Germain, and in select theaters beginning Friday, December 22—imagines a hypothetical house call by the Oxford don to the 83-year-old father of psychoanalysis. Anthony Hopkins (who also played Lewis in Shadowlands) brings a complex depth to Freud in his last weeks of life, and Matthew Goode (of Downton Abbey and The Imitation Game) is an earnest, younger Lewis who feels a bit awkward at having satirized Freud in Pilgrim’s Regress.

Soon, though, two of the greatest minds of the 20th century are debating everything from the existence of God to the origin of evil to the meaning of suffering. It’s a heavyweight matchup, and Freud’s Last Session offers ringside seats. One brief exchange gives the sense of the debate:

Freud: Your God who created good, or whatever that is, he must have also created the bad, the evil. He allowed Lucifer to live; he let him flourish. But logically he should have destroyed him. Am I correct? Think about it.

Lewis: God gave Lucifer free will, which is the only thing that makes goodness possible. A world filled with choice-less creatures is a world of machines. It’s men, not God, who created prisons and slavery and—bombs. Man’s suffering is the fault of man.

Freud: Is that your excuse and explanation for pain and suffering? Did I bring about my own cancer? Or is killing me God’s revenge for my disbelief?

Lewis: I don’t know. … It’s the most difficult question of all, isn’t it?

If this back and forth were the whole of the film, it would amount to a dramatized version of psychiatrist Armand Nicholi’s 2003 book, The Question of God, which set Lewis’s and Freud’s philosophies side by side in nonfiction format and inspired St. Germain’s play. But the screenplay’s inclusion of troubled pasts, familial conflicts, and personal suffering moves Lewis’s visit from an intellectual sparring match to an emotionally riveting drama—and the blooming of a friendship built not on shared values or common interests but on vulnerability and service.

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As World War II progresses, air raid sirens and a bomb shelter send Lewis into a panic attack caused by PTSD from his service in World War I. Meanwhile, Freud’s inoperable oral cancer and mouth prosthesis give him constant, sometimes unbearable pain. When frustration arises, the two men shift from debating ideas to probing each other’s personal lives for weaknesses or hypocrisies—including Lewis’s much-debated relationship with a fellow soldier's mother, Janie Moore, with whom he lived for many years.

Yet when either man sees the other suffering, he steps in to help. The climactic moments aren’t brilliant arguments, coups de gras delivered by one scholar or the other. They’re moments of pain, fear, and selflessness. They might be better proofs of God than even Lewis can muster.

Polarization has been the buzzword of our decade. We’re told it’s worse than ever before in American history (or maybe it’s not), that the problem is politics (or maybe it’s us), and that we have to become better at listening, at asking careful questions, at exposing ourselves to more viewpoints.

But what if the remedy for polarization isn’t talking or listening? What if it’s service?

We are called to “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus,” the one who “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Phil. 2:5; Mark 10:45). We are told to “carry each other’s burdens, and in this way [we] will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). Being persuasive isn’t in the instructions; in fact, many of our arguments will never make sense to nonbelievers (1 Cor. 1:18).

Freud’s Last Session doesn’t conclude with a rhetorical victory. Neither man “wins” the conversation—which is hardly a spoiler given their well-known careers and views. But they do come away changed. Freud finally opens himself up to be, as he puts it, “manipulated” by life’s beauty, and he’s willing to pursue a healthier relationship with his daughter Anna. Lewis, it’s suggested, finds new insight into his recurring fantasy of a forest that evokes awe of the divine.

Lewis labels the emotion of the forest as “joy,” and he and Freud both admit to a lifetime of longing for it. But arguing about free will and the problem of evil doesn’t bring them joy. Instead it’s found in small acts of presence and service, and we don’t need the intellect of C. S. Lewis to share that with an unbelieving world.

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Caveat Spectator

This is Freud, so there will be talk of sex. He and Lewis spar on that topic along with many others, and in one scene a woman describes a dream involving sexual trauma. Some flashbacks to Lewis’s time in the trenches and hospital also contribute to the PG-13 rating.

Alexandra Mellen is senior copy editor at Christianity Today.