One of the ways by which I judge the quality of a film is by its ability to sweep me away from ordinary life, inspired by the vision and intensity of the film. It also helps if the film does the unexpected, goes against predictable norms. I saw Darren Aronofsky’s Noah this past Monday and by the above standards for me Noah was a great movie. While my expectations for this film had already been fairly positive based on the reviews I had read, the movie experience far exceeded my expectations.
In general I do not like biblical epics. Movies such as the Ten Commandments and most of the various Jesus movies ( Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew being the exceptions) leave me cold. They are predictably designed not to offend the sensitivities of fundamentalist and orthodox Christian base communities, they offer little that is either creative, thoughtful, or new.
Therefore it was a surprise for me when I discovered that Noah was different. It was different first because Aronofsky, the director of such films as The Black Swan and The Wrestler does not in Noah attempt to portray “biblical accuracy.” For example he creates a substantial role for the “watchers” the fallen angels which while they are mentioned only in passing within the book of Genesis, have a much greater role in the books of extra-biblical Jewish literature such as those of Enoch. Furthermore in contrast to the Bible story the intentions of God himself are seen within the movie only through the experiences and perceptions of Noah himself. One gets the impression that Noah himself is only stumbling to an understanding of God’s will as he goes along.
Thus part of the drama of the plot lays in the fact that Noah interprets the judgment of the flood as being about the destruction of the human life on this earth in its entirety and that the Ark is meant only for the salvation of the “innocent” of animals and of nature not people. This understanding which Noah reluctantly accepts in opposition to his wife and children drives much of the drama of the film. It also corresponds to a modern consciousness of the ecological destruction of global warming and ecocide which is one of the most significant realities of the modern world. In all of these ways the movie Noah is not simplistically “biblical.”
Of course these and other deviations from the purely biblical text is seen negatively by many as “inaccurate.” However the Bible itself hardly portrays historical accuracy. The historical fact is that there never was a real ark nor a great flood which destroyed all of humanity. The Biblical flood story, a story written by human authors, is based on old Canaanite / Israel traditions that no doubt were originally based on the Babylonian flood epic portrayed in the Legend of Gilgamesh. What the biblical authors attempted to do is to use old stories which were probably believed literally to state certain theological / existential realities about the justice and mercy of Yahweh the God of Israel.
Thus the biblical world they portray is a mythological world in which snakes talk, giants walk the earth, and a great flood destroys the whole earth in accordance to Gods’ will. Furthermore there were no doubt a multitude of flood stories from which the biblical authors could have chosen in order to present their vision of God and God’s justice. They choose some and rejected others. Aronofsky in his film Noah does the same.
Aronofsky uses the biblical Noah story and other stories out the Jewish tradition such as the books of Enoch to recreate the Noah story so that while it correctly reflects the concerns of the biblical authors of about the brutality and violence of the human race, it also reflects the violence of human race against nature itself. Within it Noah is seen as making the case that humanity itself is so flawed that it should not survive.
In contrast Noah’s wife Naamah played by Jennifer Connelly and Ila the pregnant wife of Shem played by Emma Watson come to the conclusion that the young are innocent and mercy should be extended to the human race in the form of Ila’s own newly born daughters. Thus the movie does what much of the literature of the Bible does; it creates a meditation on the reality of God’s justice vs his mercy via a story. In this way I would suggest that Noah the movie is in fact more faithful the spirit of much of the bible in its concern for justice and mercy than it would have been if it had kept safely within the confines of the literal Biblical text.
What more can I say? Well the acting in the film is superb. Noah as he is commonly portrayed in popular culture has always been sort of an almost comical figure to me, a sentimental figure from a children’s book. Now I can see him in the image of the bleak, tormented but noble image of Russell Crowe’s Noah. The other characters Noah’s wife Naamah, his sons particularly Ham and Ila all come alive in a real way. Tubal Cain who opposes Noah through out the film,played by Ray Winestone, is one of the notable characters in the film. He is the powerful anti-Noah the brutal and intelligent antithesis to Noah’s ideals and work. He is the articulator of the alternative wisdom of human power / technology, the self deification of humankind, and the bravery of humanity even in opposition to God that is so central to the values of this civilization.
Finally Noah the film is simply wonderful to look at in its bleak beauty – most of it was filmed in Iceland. And of course the movies uses all methods of showing human conflict and the special effects artistry of the best of modern movie directors quite effectively. Noah can hold its place with some of the very few biblically themed or religiously based movies that have attained greatness.