April 14, 2014
Before beginning this review, I should make a confession. Prior to Noah, I had never seen a Darren Aronofsky film before. Not Pi, not Requiem for a Dream, not Black Swan--none of them (though several of his films are high on my watch list). There may be those of you, true film aficionados, who think this disqualifies me from writing a review altogether; in any case, it means that this will not be the sort of review that enthusiastically compares this or that motif with other works in the director's oeuvre. I should also caution that if you are looking for a review that engages at length with all of the controversy surrounding this film, a sort of "review of the reviews" then you are also looking in the wrong place; I have read very few of them, having had no intention of seeing this film before being asked to review it.
However, I am very glad indeed that I did. The film is a powerful, visceral depiction of the radical--but not irredeemable--evil of the human race, a visually resplendent portrayal of a long-lost world. As a piece of cinema, to be sure, it is far from perfect. The camera work and visual effects, perhaps, are impeccable, a rare fusion of high art and high tech. But the other key elements are shaky at points. The dialogue often falls flat, and the plot is perhaps strained at points by over-dramatic twists and changes of character. The casting choices are decidedly mixed: to see Anthony Hopkins as Methuselah is by itself worth the price of admission; on the other hand, while erstwhile witch and now fashion queen Emma Watson does better than one might have expected as a primitive and pregnant antediluvian, it's still easy to wonder why she was given the role. The dullness of Douglas Booth as Shem is matched only by the intensity and complexity of Logan Lerman as Ham, though Ray Winstone makes a fine Tubal-Cain. But of course, the performances that must anchor the film are those of Russell Crowe as Noah and Jennifer Connelly as his wife Naameh. Crowe is, of course, one of the great actors of our generation, and although this is unlikely to go down as one of his greatest performances, it is powerful enough--reminiscent in many ways of his role in Gladiator: taciturn, determined, pious, and fiercely loyal to the call of duty. It is a joy to see him reunited on screen with Connelly, who won an Oscar as his co-star in perhaps his greatest performance, 2001's A Beautiful Mind. While her role here, by and large, does not call for the same brilliance as she exhibited then, there is one scene toward the end where she turns in a gut-wrenching Oscar-caliber performance.
Ultimately, however, the film stands or falls on its theological vision, its success in retelling part of Holy Scripture. Aronofsky himself seems to grasp this; he is not interested, as I thought he might be, in historicizing the flood, e.g., by adopting a local flood theory and minimizing the role of God. On the contrary, he accentuates the mythical dimension, presenting the story as the cosmic act of judgment that it was; and God, I would submit, is a looming presence throughout the film, though some, I am sure, would disagree.
To be sure, it is not hard to see why the film has sparked much controversy among Christian viewers. But it is important to be clear about what should and should not be cause for controversy. Unless one believes that Scripture should never be the subject of artistic adaptation, one can hardly complain if the adaptation adds in a great deal that is not in the text, especially when the source text, as in this case, is a mere 2,000 words (in English). Aronofsky has imaginatively embellished and filled in the gaps in the brief Scriptural account, and has often done so, not with his own imaginings, but with details drawn from Jewish midrash. The question is whether these reimaginings are consistent with the text. Even if they are not, or if elements of the text are openly changed, this should not really in itself be cause for controversy. Aronofsky, after all, is not a confessing Christian, and should not be expected to feel bound to the letter of the text. The real question is not whether Aronofsky has or has not offered us a faithful retelling of the story of Noah, but of what we think of the theological vision that his film presents through its reimagining of that story.
After all, Scripture itself is always engaged in such theological reimaginings of itself. Through the repeated use of types and antitypes, motifs of striving brothers, and barren wombs opened, of judgment, exile, and return, of deaths and resurrections, Scripture invites us to read the story of Abraham through the story of Moses, and vice versa, and both through the story of Christ, and vice versa. And although we are not necessarily entitled to the same liberties, or the same infallibility, in our rereadings, it is intriguing to see Aronofsky engaged in just this sort of mode of interpretation, with other biblical stories looming in the backdrop and coloring his presentation of Noah's struggles of faith. In particular, we are given a Noah story that is richly layered with echoes of Abraham, and the Sacrifice of Isaac. I will not give away spoilers by elaborating; suffice to say that one of the most extreme, and disturbing, modifications that Aronofsky makes to the story can be understood much better if seen through this lens.
Indeed, this film might be said to seek to do to the story of Noah what Soren Kierkegaard did to the story of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac in Fear and Trembling, exploring the titanic struggle that faith really can be. On balance, we tend to imagine faith in the Old Testament to have been a comparatively easy thing. God spoke to his prophets and patriarchs audibly and clearly, after all: he told them what he was going to do, and he did it; he told them what he wanted them to do, and he blessed them or cursed them accordingly. We, on the other hand, we just have to muddle through, most of the time, struggling to discern his will and respond to it, often mistaking our own feelings and desires for whispers of his voice, or, conversely, being overly skeptical, and dismissing it as self-deceit when he really is speaking to us. Poor us. Lucky them.
Aronofsky's film invites us to ask of the Old Testament, "But what if it was like that for them too? What if they too struggled with doubt and self-deceit in attempting to trust God and follow his will?" Whether or not this is a permissible reading of the story of Noah (and it is not apparent to me that narrations of God speaking always need be read as literal transcripts), it seems to me that it is a permissible reading of much of Scripture. The certainty with which these Scriptural saints are presented as having grasped God's will is all with the benefit of hindsight; in the moment, we may suppose, it was a much murkier and much scarier matter indeed. The challenge, accordingly, with which Aronofsky's Noah struggles is that of a seemingly silent God, a God who tells us enough to get us started on our task of obedience, but not enough to guide us all the way through it with confidence that we have got it right and that he is still smiling on us. I was reminded, watching the film, of Gerard Manley Hopkins' magnificent poem "Nondum," which, below the epigraph, "Verily thou art a God that hidest thyself," begins:
"God, though to Thee our psalm we raise
No answering voice comes from the skies;
To Thee the trembling sinner prays
But no forgiving voice replies;
Our prayer seems lost in desert ways,
Our hymn in the vast silence dies.
We see the glories of the earth
But not the hand that wrought them all:
Night to a myriad worlds gives birth,
Yet like a lighted empty hall
Where stands no host at door or hearth
Vacant creation's lamps appal.
We guess; we clothe Thee, unseen King,
With attributes we deem are meet;
Each in his own imagining
Sets up a shadow in Thy seat;
Yet know not how our gifts to bring,
Where seek Thee with unsandalled feet."
To this extent, I found Aronofsky's theological vision to resonate powerfully with deeply Scriptural themes, even if these were not obviously present in the text of Genesis 6-9.
Another aspect of the film's theological vision that warrants comment is its surprisingly (considering Aronofsky is a lapsed Jew) Pauline vision of human evil. We read in Genesis 6:8-9, "But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. . . . Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation," and think to ourselves, "Well there it is. That's why he and his family were saved. The whole world was full of wickedness, except Noah and his family were righteous, so they were chosen to pass through the flood, untouched by the evil or the judgment, in an ark of salvation, and start creation fresh." But of course, we know that's not quite right. Noah and his family may have been more righteous, but we know that they too were deeply enmeshed in the corruption of Adam's sin. They took evil on the ark with them, and they multiplied it and spread it over the face of the earth again after the Flood. Paul would have said, accordingly, that they found favor with God by grace, and for this reason they were reckoned righteous.(1)
The ark, and the family of Noah, are often read as a type of the Church, and with this in mind, we could say that Aronofsky offers us a very Protestant ecclesiology(2) : the ark is a corpus permixtum, carrying both good and evil. At one pivotal scene in the film, when Noah goes into the camp of Tubal-Cain, a place of terrible suffering and repellent evil, Noah sees himself in the face of one of the depraved and violent men scavenging for food there. The conclusion he draws from this realization, that he and his family too cannot escape the judgment falling on the human race, is an un-Pauline one--or rather, remains stuck at Rom. 7:24, without making it to 8:1. He does not, until the end, perceive the graciousness of God, perceive that he and his family really have found favor in the eyes of the Lord.
To be sure, the development of these themes is not altogether satisfying or consistent, and other, more negative readings of the film are certainly possible; whatever it is, it is not simplistic. Many other themes would warrant attention in a longer review: the remarkable role played by the figure of Ham, for instance, and his tortured relationship with his father, or the rich ecological overtones in the film, with its connection of mankind's violence with his exploitation of creation; at one point, Tubal-Cain, having just eaten a serpent, gives a speech to Ham about man's "dominion" over the creatures that sounds suspiciously like that of many Christian conservatives today.
Whatever one thinks of the film (and I certainly do not expect all to be as satisfied on the whole, as I was), it certainly deserves a thoughtful viewing and promises to provoke rich discussion.
Brad Littlejohn holds a Ph.D from the University of Edinburgh and is the Managing Editor, Political Theology Today, the General Editor, The Mercersburg Theology Study Series and can be found writing regularly at www.swordandploughshare.com.