When it was first announced that Paramount had given Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) the green light to tell his version of the Noah story, many familiar with the director’s work wondered how he and frequent collaborator and scriptwriter Ari Handel were going to interpret it.
The mainstream audience began popping up their heads a few months ago, when all they had heard was that Hollywood had made a soon-to-be-released BIG movie about Noah in the Bible. Naturally, the Bible geeks were shivering with anticipation. The only surprise from the near hysteria which followed was that the pious made so much noise primarily after the premiere, rather than before. Naturally, true to form, there has been condemnation from some without even having seen the film, but not quite to the extent we have seen from evangelical audiences previously. Some have accused Paramount of duping Christians into seeing it with a misleading campaign. Perhaps, or perhaps the studio merely overestimated that faction of the American public.
The cries from a plethora of American Evangelical Christians that Noah is “blasphemous” is, in fact, offensive in itself, but not entirely unexpected. The Noah story does not exclusively belong to evangelical Christians, as it is not of Christian origin. Rather, that version of the universal flood is derived from ancient Jewish and rabbinic writings. Even the writers of Genesis took the Noah account from preexisting narratives, such as the “Epic of Gilgamesh.”
The art of Biblical storytelling is an oral tradition, which predates written scripture. Aronofsky continues in that spirit of oral tradition. Indeed, it is a theme which gives the film its strength and edge. Aronofsky, long obsessed with making Noah (2014), proves erudite, giving his film flourishes of a primordial world not far removed, time-wise, from Eden. It is a world with memories of its Paradise Lost hauntingly intact (i.e. a visual reference to the Edenic river). In the middle of all this is the startling protagonist Noah (Russell Crowe), whom Aronofsky gives flesh, flaws and drama, removing him from the plaster pedestal. That seems to be Aronofsky’s chief offense for the unimaginative, pious masses who wanted a film about a cardboard cutout, rosy-cheeked, bearded old white guy smiling sweetly as he loads happy sheep onto his velcro boat. The rainbow ending is, of course, up for grabs. Aronofsky’s approach is far too serious for that and he creatively reworks scripture and rabbinic writings into a challenging work of art that approaches world literature.
As with all great literature, it has elements of the reflective and the unexpected. The non-canonical “Book of Enoch” is another source he draws on. Aronofsky and Handel write in the spirit of ancient biblical writers, who had no issues mixing myth, parable, folklore, and poetry together with a sliver of historicity into one narrative. They were not bound by our ideas of hyper-realism or linear storytelling. The earliest Church fathers understood this, and did not take scripture as either exclusively literal or historical. They saw it as a collection of diverse literary forms, written by divergent, God-obsessed peoples trying to grasp divine concepts. The resulting efforts were often akin to infinite ideas described in inadequately finite language, which is why we sometimes have conflicting biblical views of God within the same paragraph. Advocates of biblical inerrancy will argue that the ancient writings are Spirit-inspired. Perhaps, but even then it had to be filtered through human hands and, therefore, the Bible is “fallible” in our contemporary understanding of the term.
Aronofsky is not a believer per se, but despite claims of those who are trying to demonize him, he does not take the “religion as the root of all evil” route. Indeed, Aronofsky, of Jewish heritage and education, clearly seeks to express an idea in an admirably classic way that is also overwhelming, confounding and vital for the viewer: God as both maternal and paternal Creator. That is an idea too sacred for the secular and too secular for the pious.
In one sense, it is refreshing that Noah is a challenging enough film to provoke and inspire debate. This makes Noah more than just a chalky Sunday School lesson. We do not have to worry about Aronofsky and Handel succumbing to the status quo (who seem forever intent on proving how little we have evolved in the past few millennium anyway).
Of course, the arrogant assumption that all Christians are evangelicals subscribing to sola scriptura is the foremost offensive reaction to the film by disgruntled audiences. This is actually more of the “either/or” mentality that far too many fundamentalists succumb to: one either approaches biblical stories as history, verbatim accounts that happened exactly as written, or one does not believe. Aronofsky’s Noah is further evidence of the evangelical reaction to anything which veers away from their expectations; reactions which are frighteningly similar to those we have seen from radical Muslims regarding certain films, art, etc. If Aronofsky proves anything, he proves that one can respond to or be inspired by scripture without subscribing to it as monotone historicity. Aronofsky’s God reaches out to the patriarchal line—from Anthony Hopkins as Methuselah to Crowe’s Noah—via visions. The “God” terminology is provocatively ambiguous, and lest we forget, we do not find God being referred to, in name, until much later in the Bible. The concept of God as YHWH (et. al.) was not yet developed at this time, and the context here would have us see this God simply as the Creator. Projecting any other names onto God would have been sloppy interpretive work on the part of Aronofsky.
Another theme is the fall of humanity and humanity’s subsequent relationship to the environment. Oddly, Aronofsky’s depiction of the Nephilim is one of those “blink and you will miss it” references found in the Hebrew Bible that the literalists actually prefer to be ignored. Perhaps its one of those references that reiterates a little too strongly fantasy elements inherent in the Bible.
Aronofsky’s film indeed is in line with much of Hebrew literature (at least where it matters) and contextually it may be one of the most bravely “accurate” film productions of the Bible to date. If unimaginative fundamentalists have hangups about it, it is, in the end, their hangup. Still, hearing some of the hackneyed protests against this film makes me wonder, what the hell is wrong with religion? Why is it so afraid of challenge and artistic interpretation?