Yes or No-ah

Below are two responses to Darren Aronofsky’s film Noah, by Megan Graham and Emmet O’Cuana.

Noah blockbuster makes questionable choices
by Megan Graham

The International Movie Database website describes the plot of Noah this way: “A man is chosen by his world’s creator to undertake a momentous mission to rescue the innocent Promotional poster for Noah with Russell Crowebefore an apocalyptic flood cleanses the wicked from the world.”

‘His world’s creator’ is an apt way to phrase it – this film is very much set in a biblical Old Testament world. It’s also set in a world of the director, Darren Aronofsky’s making – a place where grass can grow instantaneously from the ground with a single drop of rain; where rocks form into human-like shapes and talk; where old men can reverse the effects of deep knife wounds with just their thoughts.

This film has managed to equally please and incense either side of the religious divide. To some it does not adequately support a fundamentalist Christian agenda – for others, it’s not critical enough of said agenda.

It’s a theatrical telling of an old story. This of course involves many decisions made in constructing a narrative, a scene and character arcs. The fact this story was taken from the Bible has no doubt informed its re-telling and context.

I had assumed this would be the case, particularly if Aronofsky is hoping for it to be a commercial success in the US where the Christian right carry a lot of sway. As such I didn’t have high expectations. I went for the expensive special effects and visual depiction of a grand (super)natural disaster, not expecting the story to bring me much insight or satisfaction.

I was correct. But the patriarchal treatment of women in the film is excessive, even when taking into account its context. Women are depicted as walking wombs and passive reactors to the decisions of the men in their lives.

During one significant scene, Noah goes out to ‘gather’ wives for his sons as if they are berries ripe for the picking (this is not part of the biblical narrative, wherein Noah’s sons already have wives who they take onto the ark). During these scenes, Noah seems to only care about the young female strangers who might be wives for his son – beyond that, their safety is irrelevant.

While two female characters take some decisive action of their own accord, these actions need validation via approval of (or obvious benefit to) the leading men. Female character Ila explicitly equates fertility with being a ‘real woman’. Not surprisingly, the story implies a solution to barrenness at the hands of an old man.

Male violence is treated as expected, even righteous at times (from those on the ‘right side’ of the fight anyway). Perhaps these things are meant to reflect an era that none of us can fully know. But there are a lot of guesses made here and therefore a message is inevitably sent. While he couldn’t ‘change’ the bare bones of the story of Noah in the Bible, Aronofsky could choose a certain reading of and working of the text. And he did.

A revision of some of the narrative was deemed necessary. To prevent the audience from having to contemplate/condone incest they included a young female character (Emma Watson) who wasn’t related to Noah’s family – this part, we can sugar-coat. The film also takes a more sympathetic view towards Noah’s son Ham, who in the biblical narrative disgraced his father and was condemned by him. Our reasons for accepting his behaviour is the fact he so badly desires a wife but is denied one.

Noah is replete with bad (and often badly delivered) lines; obvious or contrived exchanges saturated in melodrama. The inclusion of rock monsters – strange ye olde versions of Transformers – to assist Noah in his quest are an extra supernatural element thrown in for good measure to make the story even more spectacular. Their inclusion allows for scenes involving large-scale violence.

If Aronofsky was aiming to please a patriarchal audience, or ‘wow’ viewers with action, gore and special effects, I dare say he has achieved that. If he was aiming to please Christians wanting a gritty version of an old story, he might please some of those too.

But apart from being visually impressive and interesting from the perspective of exploring a literal interpretation of the Bible, Noah is mostly underwhelming.

Noah – The Bible on Film
by Emmet O’Cuana

“It was hopeless
The man could not take the evil crowd with him
But he was allowed to bring his good family.

The rain continued through the night
And the cries of screaming men filled the air”

From The Dove, by Darren Aronofsky, 1982

The quote above is taken from a poem written by the director of recent Bible blockbuster Noah when he was thirteen years old. A student at Brooklyn’s Mark Twain Intermediate School 239, Aronofsky was awarded a prize for Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly in Noahhis efforts in free form Bible-verse and was encouraged by teacher Vera Fried to exchange his interest in mathematics for writing.

This set him on the path to becoming one of the most intriguing film-makers in American cinema today, having already tackled everything from mysticism to drug addiction, science fiction to kitchen sink drama. The story of Aronofsky’s poem has a sweet post-script, which has featured in a lot of press coverage surrounding the film. The director eventually tracked down his former teacher, who had no idea he had become a film-maker, and brought her to the premiere of the film. She even appears briefly as a Cainite (as in descendent of Cain) refugee who confronts Russell Crowe’s Noah moments before he has one of his frequent apocalyptic visions.

The purpose of this digression is to establish that Aronofsky has been thinking about the story of Noah for quite some time. The commercial success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion reintroduced Hollywood to the concept that audiences wanted to see stories that drew for inspiration on the Bible. There has been worrying exploitation of this market – The Passion was made outside of the studio system as Fox had dropped it following accusations of anti-semitism, meaning Gibson directly reaped the box office profits. Studios have bussed church groups to screenings of the allegorical children’s fantasy The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, or courted the Anti-Defamation League to approve the recent film Son of God. That film in turn was accused of racism for the casting of actor Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni as Satan, as the actor was perceived to bear a striking resemblance to US President Barack Obama.

As far as casting goes, Noah is pure Hollywood Bible-land. The characters are conspicuously Caucasian and speak the Queen’s English while delivering their cod-Old Testament dialogue.

Where Aronofsky casts off the conventional approach to the material that has dogged everyone from Cecil B. DeMille to John Huston is in his sourcing of the Biblical Apocrypha and a strong visual emphasis, embracing hallucenogenic visions to special-effects driven scenes of violence and chaos. In Aronofsky’s retelling Noah is the last descendent of Adam’s son Seth and therefore a tzaddikim. God does not speak to him, but the vision of the Flood is perceived as a direct command. Noah and his family refuse to eat meat, live as nomads and serve penance for the events of the expulsion from Paradise generations before them. In contrast the descendents of Cain, led by their king Tubal-Cain, have devoured most of the species of animal left on the Earth, practice cannibalism to gain strength and live in cities.

Throughout the film we are treated to two different perspectives on the Fall of Man. Noah sees the Fall as a sin for which he and his family must atone. Tubal-Cain, however, believes God has abandoned humanity and therefore the land is his to plunder as he chooses. Aronofsky then roots the third act’s drama in this philosophical divide. Noah is the resolutely faithful believer who will willingly kill his own loved ones, because he sees it as the Creator’s will that humanity be made extinct as punishment for its crimes. Tubal-Cain, by contrast, offers Noah’s son Ham the chance to fight back, that mankind has the right to determine its own future.

The narrative of Noah has raised many eyebrows, not least for the inclusion of The Watchers adapted from the Book of Enoch, as well as the repeated emphasis on the lack of wives for Noah’s three sons. In the Old Testament the wives are already on board the ark, whereas Aronofsky removes them from the story – aside from a character named Illa (Emma Watson) who cannot have children – to emphasise how this family is one generation at most away from extinction. The final moments of the film examine Noah’s sense of duty in conflict with his love for his family.

Aronofksy has produced his own contribution to the Midrash, a film that debates the meaning and intent behind the story of Noah as the rabbinical scholars of the Old Testament have done for centuries. It succeeds not only as a work of cinema, but as a sincere attempt to engage with the themes of judgement and mercy from the book of Genesis.

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