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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 3, 2014

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Noah the Movie

I am happy to see that the Darren Aronofsky film Noah has had a strong opening weekend.

Even though Aronofsky is a self-proclaimed atheist, I find that Noah actually does a far better job of representing the Bible and Judeo-Christian teachings in general than most films by pious believers.

But first, and most important, it's simply a powerful movie, well-invented, well-written, and well-acted. Set aside the fact that it's based on a story from a work of scripture that is believed in by millions of people around the world, and it's still a first-rate film.

In fact, I daresay those who dislike the film most will be believers who already had very clear ideas about what the story of Noah means and how it should be told.

So let me divide my review into two parts. First, let me talk about it as a work of storytelling art, and then as an interpretation of scripture. The second part will be full of spoilers, but I'll try to keep the first part spoiler-free, though I start from the assumption that everybody knows that there's a really big flood and Noah and his family live through it.

Noah as Art

Russell Crowe is an actor capable of the Heroic Moment. Because Kevin Costner can't do it, his Robin Hood movie failed. But Costner is not rare -- few actors can deliver powerful speeches and heroic actions and still remain believable as human beings. Russell Crowe is one of that special breed, and that is one reason that his portrayal of Noah is so effective.

He has to do truly abominable things and yet remain both believable and sympathetic to us. He is able to bring this off, not just because of his talent, but also because the script sets up reasons for his character to be at the same time broken and unbreakable.

But Crowe is not alone. Jennifer Connelly, whom I have usually perceived as a very cold actress, gives a performance that begins in silent acceptance and then graduates to a deeply emotional response to her husband's choices.

Anthony Hopkins, as Noah's grandfather, Methuselah, is even more magnificent than we're used to, and that's saying a lot. He is at once a charmingly real old man and a convincing prophet-wizard, with the ability to see or show the future and heal with a few words of blessing.

The actors who play the young versions of Shem, Ham, Noah, and the fictional Ila, wife of Shem, do a splendid job. Likewise, the actors who play the adult Shem and Ham (Douglas Booth and Logan Lerman, respectively) give deep and moving performances, letting us believe in their actions amid conflicting loyalties.

Madison Davenport, in her near-cameo as the young woman Ham falls in love with makes something memorable and fine out of only a minute or two of screen time.

But the most glorious surprise of this brilliantly acted movie is Emma Watson in her performance as Ila, Shem's wife who is, like so many biblical women, thought to be barren and then, after all hope is past, conceives a child.

We knew her first as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series, where her intelligence and spunk were really all that was required for her to give a good performance in those films.

Few actors who begin as children (rather than teenagers) grow up to be anything much as adult actors. Emma Watson is now on film as a glorious exception to the rule. Her performance is utterly real, nuanced, and far more emotional than Hermione Granger gave us any reason to expect.

All of this takes place in a fully-imagined dark-fantasy landscape and society that, while it suffers from some of the usual flaws of such settings, is completely effective in framing the story Aronofsky wanted to tell.

The flaws are obvious but unexceptional: Hundreds, even thousands of people supposedly survive in a landscape in which nothing grows. The heroes are supposedly complete vegetarians, yet we never see crops or even wild-growing plants in sufficient quantity to sustain life for a week, let alone bring a child to unstunted adulthood.

But the best fantasy film series of all time, George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones, shows us thousands of "Wildlings" living in a landscape of ice and snow where they should all have died in a few days.

We are used to accepting economically and scientifically impossible societies in such highly imaginary films, just as we're used to magical cures of lethal disease in thrillers, magical crime scene discoveries in cop shows, and magical computer fact-acquisition in detective stories.

While I much prefer fantasy and science fiction films that show respect to how real human societies and economies function, I accept (as most of us accept) the convention that assumes that all of those things happen offscreen, somewhere else, while what we see onscreen is the landscape and society that fit the mood of the story.

What I appreciate most about the writing is that the story is not only clearly told, it is a story worth telling. While ordinary humans are not faced with the destruction of the human race, along with specific instructions from God about what we're supposed to do about it, we are faced with moral imperatives that often contradict our personal desires.

Such dilemmas are not rare. People who are gentle by nature often find themselves required, either by society or by their own moral sense, to enter into conflict or perform acts of violence.

Not just soldiers in war or policemen in the line of duty face such dilemmas. There are verbal frays that offer real-world consequences, and the choices we make show our character.

Noah himself is the pivotal figure in this story, and his dilemma drives the surprising plot after the flood arrives. But the moral dilemmas of his wife, his two older sons, and his daughter-in-law are equally powerful, equally important to the plot, and Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel have done an unusually good job of making these characters real even in the midst of a magical/religious world.

Contrast their work with Peter Jackson's pathetic "improvements" on Tolkien's masterful Lord of the Rings and his downright wretched stretching of the story of The Hobbit in his bloated film adaptation, and you can see just how deft the writing in Noah really is.

The source material is brief and sketchy, yet they rarely contradict it. Not only that, but they are also true to the milieu -- there is almost no modern baggage dragged into a purportedly ancient story.

In fact, they are surprisingly faithful to the culture and world-view of the early portion of Genesis, which is full of magical thinking, patriarchal authority, and dog-eat-dog competition.

How many screenwriters would have dared to depict such a patriarchal character as Noah in Noah without giving us little feminist sermons; instead, the female characters are fully creatures of their time and culture, which, however it might annoy diehard feminists, is historically accurate.

And even at his most domineering, Noah is depicted with sympathy and compassion, even as we hope he fails. When, at key moments, both his wife and his daughter-in-law bow to his patriarchal authority and violent intent, we understand that they conceive his success as inevitable and further resistance as both futile and morally impossible (to them).

Audiences are perfectly capable of sorting such things out. Nobody is going to be converted to abject submission to patriarchy just because well-portrayed characters in a very good movie submit to it. Instead, we're simply glad we don't live in such times.

I mean, we have no trouble viewing films set in a time before toilets without wishing to imitate the non-toilet-using characters. Those who deplore a story for not making all sympathetic characters behave according to their modern view of right and wrong miss the whole point of art, which is to let us enter into a mind and worldview other than our own.

The differences between us and the artist and between our desires and the desires of the characters are how we clarify and, often, solidify our own views. Imitation is far from being the inevitable result of witnessing art. Yes, Clark Gable's lack of an undershirt in It Happened One Night killed the American undershirt industry, but that was a trivial thing (except to undershirt manufacturers and sellers). On deep moral issues, seeing a difference can make us more open-minded without changing our behavior.

That is why I heartily recommend Noah as a superb adaptation of a traditional story, as one of the best fantasy films ever made, and as a collection of outstanding actors giving superb performances of a well-written script.

Noah and Genesis

(At this point, I wrote a long digression on my own beliefs about the real-world origins of the flood story so widely spread throughout the world. But to spare the Rhino Times editor, not to mention the readers, that digression will be offered only to subscribers to Uncle Orson On the Fly -- http://www.hatrack.com/onthefly.)

While Bible literalists are outraged by Noah, and writer/director Aronofsky is quick to tell people that he's an atheist and Noah is the "least biblical" movie of a Bible story ever made, I have reached a very different conclusion.

I think Noah is not only the most faithful depiction of the story of Noah ever made, it also offers one of the most powerful expressions of Judeo-Christian values ever presented in film.

My complaints about Son of God and Passion of the Christ, for instance, centered around gross anachronisms in the former and, in both of them, an almost complete failure to present the actual message of Christ.

But Noah actually gives us -- even in the most fictionalized aspects of the film -- a faithful rendering of moral messages throughout the book of Genesis.

As I warned before, I am making no effort in this portion of my review to avoid spoilers.

While there is no requirement in the text of Genesis to accept that Noah believed, clear to the end, that God's purpose was to utterly destroy human life, it is worth remembering that Genesis clearly states that at one point God did say exactly that:

"And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.... And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them" (Genesis 6:5,7).

So it is not unreasonable to think that the first message Noah got was the Creator's intention to destroy his whole creation.

But, as is often the case in Genesis, there is a duplication of these statements (as if multiple accounts were being combined). After verse 8, we get a start-over, as if Noah were being introduced for the first time. Again, we are told that "earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence" (Genesis 6:11).

Aronofsky is absolutely faithful to this declaration that the sin for which mankind was to be destroyed was "violence." He also compounds this with an earlier verse (6:2): "The sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose."

Thus Noah shows not only lots of brutal killing and cruelty, but also, quite specifically, that women are carried off against their will. Near the end, when Tubal-cain gloats about how he will restore his reign of terror after the flood, the crime that he specifically plans, and which triggers Ham's rejection of him, is that he will take all the surviving women -- which means, of course, Ham's mother, his good friend and sister-in-law Ila, and whatever daughters might be born to Shem and Ila.

Time after time, Aronofsky's "fiction" is actually strictly faithful to the text of Genesis. When he chose Tubal-cain as the one descendent of Cain listed in Genesis who would epitomize the wickedness of the human race, it wasn't just because "cain" was an element in his name.

The Bible says: "And Zillah, she also bare Tubal-cain, an instructer of every artificer in brass and iron." Thus, in a story much older than the human use of iron, we are shown Tubal-cain at the forge, hammering away at crude iron bars in order to make weapons.

Some have complained about the "fallen angels" who have become huge creatures of stone whom Noah persuades to help him and his family in the making of the ark.

Not only are they a fascinating and effective fantasy creation -- way better than ewoks, I must say, and visually gorgeous on the screen -- but they are also textually justified: "There were giants in the earth in those days," says Genesis 6:4, only a few verses before Noah is commanded to build the ark.

That they were giants made of stone is neither hinted at nor contradicted by Genesis. Aronofsky has made of that verse what he chose -- but biblical literalists cannot complain that he has included an element that other Bible adapters have rarely addressed.

Aronofsky makes repeated references, visually and vocally, to the story of the Garden of Eden. Particularly, we see the serpent that represents Satan shedding its skin -- presumably the very snakeskin that Noah's father wraps around his arm prior to literally appointing his son as his successor in following God. Noah regains this snakeskin, eventually, and uses it to touch his granddaughters to likewise endow them as children of God.

For Aronofsky, though he never says "God" but only "Creator," definitely accepts the Genesis custom of referring to human beings as "sons of God." The Creator in Noah regards himself as the father of humankind -- a pious point indeed.

Some complain because the Bible never says that Noah contemplated for a single moment killing his granddaughters, or anyone else. But what I saw was Aronofsky raiding another part of Genesis for this theme: Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac at God's behest.

In that story, Abraham is commanded to kill his long awaited son and heir -- the only child he had with his first wife, Sarah -- as a sacrifice to God. And he obeys. Only the intervention of a divine messenger at the last moment saves Isaac's life.

Remember that to kill Isaac would be to wipe out the possibility of God's promise that his wife Sarah would "be a mother of nations; kings of people shall be of her" (Genesis 17:16).

Not only that, but God promises that "I will establish my covenant with" Isaac; "and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him." This covenant was the one with Abraham that his descendants would be numerous as the sands of the sea.

So killing Isaac would be the negation of God's promises, the destruction of "nations," of progeny as numerous as sand and stars.

In Aronofsky's story, Noah is doing much the same thing: He is prepared to kill his granddaughters, who represent the entire future of the human race. The act is repugnant to him, a terrible crime, and every desire of his heart cries out against it -- as surely Abraham's did. Yet he will do it in obedience to God.

Genesis may not give this storyline to Noah, but it certainly exists in Genesis, and it is not unfair or anti-biblical of Aronofsky to use it.

While God doesn't send an angel to stop Noah from killing his granddaughters, as he did with Abraham, there are plenty of signs within the movie that Aronofsky intends us to see that Noah was fulfilling the true will of the Creator by not killing the baby girls.

It is immediately after Noah's decision to spare their lives that the dove returns to the ark, bearing an olive branch -- the sign that there is dry land again where they can set the animals free and resume their normal lives.

The juxtaposition of these events in the film can only be seen as a sign that within the film, the Creator approves of what Noah has done -- or, strictly speaking, not done.

Remember that the sin for which the Creator was going to destroy the Earth was primarily violence. Killing those girls would have been a violent act.

Whereas the earlier killing of Tubal-cain, though violent, carried a completely different moral freight. Tubal-cain was supposed to be one of the vast majority of the human race killed by the flood. But because he was "not afraid of miracles," and because he was able to tempt Ham into helping him stay concealed on the ark, he had temporarily gotten around God's death sentence.

Then, as he enlists Ham directly into conspiring with him to murder Noah, we find ourselves echoing yet another story from Genesis. The obvious comparison is with Cain's murder of Abel, but I think that's wrong.

I think what's really going on here is a recapitulation of the story of the Garden of Eden. While Shem is planning to use violence, it is to stop his father from murdering his daughters. Shem is, then, acting with the human motive of protecting his family -- an attitude that Noah and his wife have already endorsed -- and also in support of the divine commandment to "multiply and replenish the earth."

Shem, however, is quickly knocked aside and remains out of the action, which at the crucial moment consists only of Ham, Noah, and Tubal-cain, just as the crucial action in Eden has only three characters: Adam, Eve, and the serpent.

Here the object in question is not a forbidden fruit, but it is a commandment of God.

Noah has been given his instruction in two similar dreams, in which he saw the flood and emerged from it knowing that it was God's will that he build the ark to save the animals as God sent a flood to wipe out the human race.

Just as Adam and Eve were commanded not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Noah believes he has been commanded to help God carry out the plan of wiping out the human race while saving the innocent animals.

When Adam showed no sign of wanting to break the commandment about the fruit, the serpent went to work on Eve, and talked her into breaking it, which forces Adam's hand if he is to stay with her and "multiply and replenish the earth."

So also, as Noah shows himself determined to obey the commandment to wipe out the human race, the serpentlike Tubal-cain (and remember, at this point he possesses that serpent skin shed by the snake of the Garden) tempts Ham to force Noah to refrain from wiping out the human race -- by killing him.

When Shem contemplated killing his father, it was in order to protect his children -- the tabu against parricide being trumped by the duty to protect one's family.

But Ham's case is far more complicated. He has no family -- but he blames his father for that, since Noah forced Ham not to save the woman he meant to save and bring aboard the ark as his wife. Ham grieves for her -- it was genuine love and friendship, and he might easily have believed that God led him to find her. Certainly he is not wrong to hold his father partly guilty of her death.

Also, his only hope of reproduction is with a child produced by Shem and Ila. So if he kills his father, he can be motivated not only by vengeance and justice, but also by his desire to reproduce -- to multiply and replenish the earth, which the Creator had commanded.

On the one side is the Creator's commandment to destroy the human race, which only Noah heard. On the other side is Ham's broken-hearted anger, his sense of justice, and his desire to have children.

The film offers other clear signs that Noah is wrong and those who oppose him are actually serving the Creator's will. For one thing, those babies only exist because Methuselah -- whose power surely comes from the Creator and is used only in his service -- healed Ila's barrenness.

And he did not heal her as an act of magic, but most specifically as a blessing, which makes it even clearer that he is invoking the Creator's power to heal her, thus making the continuation of the human race after the ark believable.

So the audience has the delicious frustration of wanting to shake Noah and say, "The Creator obviously changed his mind! Ila would not be carrying these children if the Creator had not restored her child-bearing ability through the blessing of Methuselah!"

But nobody says this aloud. Instead, Ham is placed in a position where he can kill his father, and we have no reason to doubt that he will do it.

Until Tubal-cain exults in his triumph and boasts that now he will be king of all the humans in the world -- and that all the women on the ark will belong to him.

So instead of killing his father to save whatever children Ila might have, Ham kills Tubal-cain. Again, he has multiple motives. He is saving his mother and Ila from being possessed by this violent, horrible man. He is also aware that if Tubal-cain has control of any daughters Ila might have, then they cannot bear Ham any children.

Ham has also seen Tubal-cain murder animals, including biting the head off a lizard. In the moral world of the movie Noah, animals are not to be killed for food, so there is more than one moral wrong that Tubal-cain's victory would imply. Those animals they saved from the flood would now be at the non-existent mercy of this killer of innocents.

So Ham does not "change his mind" about killing his father. Instead, he weighs what he sees as two evils, and kills the man who would enact the greater evil. Noah, at least, believes he is obeying God, and the Creator might yet tell him otherwise.

But Tubal-cain defies the Creator ("I'm not afraid of miracles"), and he would restore the hideous society Ham experienced when he visited Tubal-cain's camp and (temporarily) saved the life of the woman he loved.

Amid all this moral complexity, though, Ham chooses the Creator's original edicts over his own hope of progeny. He kills Tubal-cain, not his father.

But nobody's pleading can then stop Noah from seeking out Ila's twin babies -- his own grandchildren -- with the intention of killing them.

That's when we come to the most powerful moment in the film, when Noah stands with knife poised over the babies, and Ila begs him for only one thing: To allow her to comfort the babies and stop their crying, so they can die in peace rather than terror.

Noah grants this -- for he does not see it as violating God's commandment -- and the song she sings is the very same song that he sang to her years before, when he rescued her, a deeply wounded child.

This brings back Noah's memory of his own act of mercy, saving Ila's life when the burden of carrying her put his own family in jeopardy.

So it is not just the natural inclination not to kill one's own progeny, or the inborn compassion most humans feel for babies no matter whose they are. It is also Noah's own recognition of his own nature: He is and always has been a man of mercy.

Having seen his own father mercilessly and needlessly killed (by Tubal-cain, in fact), and having been reminded of saving a wounded stranger at risk to his own family, Noah is forced to answer the question: Which man am I, the merciless killer or the merciful protector?

Even though it is the Creator commanding (he believes) that he kill these girls in order to complete the destruction of the wicked human race, Noah chooses to follow his own nature rather than the commandment.

This is the echo, then, of the moral decision made by Eve and Adam in the Garden of Eden. This is the doctrine of the Fortunate Fall, in which God is seen as giving two contradictory commandments to Adam and Eve: Multiply and replenish the earth, which is not possible as long as they remain innocent in the Garden; and refrain from eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge.

They can't obey one commandment without breaking the other. Thus God gave them a paradox, and in the resolution of it, they would make a free choice.

So also, in the film Noah, Noah chooses between two commandments -- and in the choice he makes, he decides, as Adam and Eve did, the future of the human race.

In a foreshadowing of Christian doctrine and of a value common in Judaism as well, Noah chooses mercy over justice. He is not hearing Samuel tell Saul, "To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams" (1 Samuel 15:22), but rather the impulse that caused the place of God on the ark of the covenant to be called the "mercy seat."

Noah spares the twin girls. But because Noah cannot see (or refuses to see) the clear signs that the Creator approves of this merciful choice, he believes that he has failed God, that he has undone the purpose of the ark.

This is how Aronofsky explains a scene in Genesis that is otherwise inexplicable: Noah's drunkenness after the flood, which leads him to lie naked and causes Ham to despise him, though Shem and Japheth cover him.

In Genesis, Noah is in a tent; in Aronofsky's version, he's at the mouth of a cave. Poetic license surely has room for this. What matters to me is that Noah's drunkenness comes, not from merriness or self-indulgence, but from depression and despair.

What is the point of anything -- even clothing -- when he has failed God?

But this is the point where redemption comes to Noah, and he is allowed to take hope again, and return to the life of his family. It makes the story itself merciful, rather than merely being about mercy.

We are even given hope that Ham will return to the family, for though he has gone away, Noah blesses all his children, including Ham, and we are given the hope of reconciliation. After all, Ham's desire to live and pass life on is strong, and part of his reason for leaving was his father's despair; when that ends, perhaps he can return.

Does Noah contradict scripture? Only in a few spots. One is that Genesis has Noah bring food into the ark for the animals (Genesis 6:21). But Aronofsky has a much more elegant solution.

In this story of miracles, he shows all the animals falling asleep almost as soon as they reach their place in the ark. It is as if they were hibernating, so they do not need to eat or drink. There is no conflict between predators and prey.

And it isn't really a contradiction. The scripture doesn't say when the animals are supposed to eat the food. The food could easily have been gathered primarily for the family, but also for the animals after they leave the ark and before there is enough food for them in the gradual replenishing of the earth. (Being underwater for half a year would not have left much in the way of plant life.)

It is a much larger contradiction that Genesis says more than once that Noah takes his wife, his sons, and his sons' wives into the ark with him.

In fact, it was because I knew that scripture well that I fully expected that Ham's attempt to find and bring a woman with him would succeed. So her abandonment and death were doubly shocking.

However, the more I think about it, the more I can see that Aronofsky, though he clearly took a great liberty with the plain meaning of the text, did not utterly contradict it. Though in Noah, Ham and Japheth are not married to adult women when they enter the ark, when they leave it they are certainly accompanied by their future wives.

And, depending on when Ila and Shem conceived their twin girls, one could argue that from the moment the ark's door was closed and they were afloat on the waters, Ham's and Japheth's wives were aboard the ark, even if they were concealed in Ila's womb.

All of this is quibbling, though. Aronofsky is flat wrong. He did not create the least biblical film, he created one of the most biblical films.

Right down to having "the fountains of the great deep broken up" (Genesis 7:11) -- it isn't just rain that falls in Noah, but also great spouts of water from underground -- Aronofsky makes use of practically every element of the Genesis account of Noah.

And his fictional inventions draw their deepest moral themes from other Genesis stories and from the core of Judeo-Christian belief.

Mercy, after all, is not all that common an ideal these days. Certainly there is no grounds for mercy in atheism, which Aronofsky purports to believe: Nature has no mercy in it, and neither has science. Today's politically correct puritans are utterly intolerant and merciless.

Aronofsky has made a film that absolutely contradicts those worldviews, and instead affirms the Judeo-Christian tradition of mercy over justice, of compassion over strict adherence to dogma.

In Noah, the Creator definitely has a list of sins that he deplores and condemns, to the point of destroying almost all humans because of their disobedience and wickedness. Today's atheists also have a list of unforgivable sins for which punishment is eternal, so an atheist could be comfortable with that aspect of Noah.

However, the whole point of Noah, the eucatastrophe that gives its ending so much relief and joy, is in the mercy Noah shows to the human race regardless of the cost to himself, and the forgiveness the family shows to Noah, and the forgiveness the Creator shows to the fallen angels who are taken back into heaven when they die, and the affirmation of the joining of male and female to make babies, and the renewal of life, and the innocence of children.

All of this is summed up in the great circle of light in the sky shown at the movie's end. Not a rainbow arc, but rather something more like the dance of the restored angels, their celebration that the human race, as embodied by Noah and his family, was worth their sacrifice to leave heaven in order to protect and nurture the children of God.

I call these Judeo-Christian values, because I am reviewing Noah as an adaptation of Genesis. But of course these are all human values, for no human society can long survive without practical implementation of mercy, forgiveness, support for reproduction, and protection of children, in the daily life of the vast majority of human beings.

Instead of the Christian audience rejecting this movie because it doesn't fit their Sunday school version of the story of the flood, I urge that we consider this to be Aronofsky's Rhapsody on Themes from Genesis.

In that light, Noah is not only a fine work of art, but also a psalm worthy of our respect.


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