|"It's gonna rain..." Noah (Russell Crowe) guards the Ark against raiders.|
by Andy Nowicki
Both films were subjected to a pre-release drubbing by conservative Christian groups, who in each case complained of disrespect for Scripture and overall theological untenability (though the deluge of condemnation rained down upon Temptation—which featured a doubt-plagued and carnally-tormented Jesus—easily drowns out the contemporary Noah imbroglio, a fact which I daresay ought to demonstrate to right-wing pagan critics that Christianity, far from being a radically “egalitarian” monstrosity, is hardly without its hierarchy of heroes).
Yet each film, in its way, is a reverent portrayal of its subject matter, and both were clearly labors of love on the part of their makers. With Temptation, Scorsese—an ex-seminarian whose Catholicism has never really lapsed even through his numerous chemical and carnal peccadilloes—wished to bring himself closer to the story of his Savior by proposing a theologically-dicey “what-if” scenario, which roughly corresponded to Joan Osborne’s song lyric, “What if God were one of us?” Scorsese envisioned Jesus as one who, though indeed the incarnate Son of God, nevertheless struggled mightily in comprehending and coming to grips with his divine vocation, and who ultimately opted to be crucified as the Messiah only after overcoming his “last temptation” to live as an ordinary man.
Temptation was a daringly revisionist tale in many ways, not only in its portrayal of Christ as such a neurotically conflicted character, but in its depiction of Judas Iscariot as a loyal follower who, in a bizarre “catch-22” scenario, only betrayed Jesus out of obedience to the latter’s own command. Yet it was widely, and I believe tragically, misunderstood. Temptation did not, in fact, indulge in cheap potshots against religious folk, nor was it a snide Hollywood-sponsored “secular humanist” mockery of the faith; instead, it represented one devout but troubled sinner’s attempt to deepen his faith by exploring possible ramifications of the human aspect of Christ’s dual identity.
Aronofsky, from all reports, is an atheist Jew, yet judging from his body of work, he holds an abiding respect for religion and an admiration for ardent believers—be they Jewish, Christian, or otherwise—who show themselves willing to endure all manner of hardship for the sake of their faith. In The Wrestler, one character enthuses over Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ in a manner that lets us know that the director shares her wistful regard for the one who, in the words of the prophet Isiah, “was punished for our iniquities… and by whose stripes we are healed.”
Like Temptation, Noah brings an unorthodox and extra-Scriptural (but not un-Scriptural) twist to the Old Testament story of the iconic ark-builder. Aronofsky’s imagination compels him to envision the antediluvian world as dominated by the “sons of Cain,” who have brutally ravaged the planet to build a foul, murderously filthy, Mordor-like regime of unnatural, unfathomable ugliness. Standing alone against this seed of human corruption is the nomadic family of Noah, sole descendants of the line of Seth. Noah’s family are strict vegetarians who shun violence against nature, though as we see in an early scene, violence against men is clearly justified in cases of self-defense.
This “environmentalist” angle has some Christian critics throwing a rather unbecoming hissy fit, as if any espousal of proper stewardship of the earth were heretical nonsense, which most assuredly is not the case in Christian history, tradition and belief. Others can’t seem to get over the existence of “rock people” in this iteration of Genesis-era events, when of course these fantastic creatures are but a theoretical rendering of the beings referred to in the mysterious “giants in the earth” Scripture passage (see Genesis 6:4).
Of course, Aronofsky’s liberties are more radical than these. While God (referred to as “the Creator”) communicates with Noah, He is often frustratingly silent when this brooding patriarch (played with an agonized, and occasionally terrifying stoicism by Russell Crowe) needs him most. Noah apprehends God’s message properly in certain respects, but it is unclear whether he has smuggled some of his own prejudices and biases into his interpretations of his Maker’s injunctions. Late in the film, before the cleansing flood waters have covered the earth, he decides that the divine will is for the human race to perish; therefore, after the flood has subsided, no more babies must be born in his sole surviving family.
At the time Noah decides this, he believes that no more births are possible; his wife (Jennifer Connelly) is past childbearing age, his eldest son’s wife (Emma Watson) is barren, and his two youngest sons (Logan Lerman and Leo McHugh Carroll) have no future wives in store. Later, when he finds out that his daughter-in-law’s barrenness has been miraculously cured and that she is now pregnant, he comes to see this as a divine test of his resolve. If the new child is born a girl, who could conceive a child in the future, he decides, this baby must be killed.
Thus the hero of this story becomes a crazed anti-life fanatic, who is later revolted by his own inability to see things through to what he earnestly believes to be God’s insistence that he rid the world of the cancer of humanity, by any means possible. It is hard not to see Noah as a kind of monster by this point, yet the discerning viewer will understand that he is only following what he takes to be a divine imperative, much like Abraham in his willingness to sacrifice his beloved son Issac.
Noah eventually does come around (though it takes some convincing) to the point of view that it is proper for man to again “be fruitful, and multiply.” Yet although fratricidal bloodshed has been averted, significant damage has still been done to the harmony of the patriarch’s family unit. And it is unclear if, in the new dispensation, man is truly meant to have “dominion” over the earth and “subdue” it. Indeed, a villainous descendant of Cain (Ray Winstone) made such a claim earlier in the film, using language taken directly from God, as revealed in the book of Genesis: is this merely an example of a “devil quoting Scripture for his own purposes,” or is Aronofsky subverting this traditional claim regarding the role of man with respect to creation? Both orthodox and heretical readings are possible here.
Like Scorsese’s Temptation, Aronfosky’s Noah is far from flawless; it is at times stilted and pompous, as historical costume epics can be. There is a certain overambitious clutter to the film, to the point that it threatens to sink under the weight of its own unwieldy mythos. Still, Noah is worth seeing, if for no other reason than to admire the director’s aesthetic virtuoso and willingness to grapple with the source material in a manner that at once startles, confounds, and challenges the viewer, whatever his faith or lack thereof.