We have finally managed to see Noah (2014). It wasn’t for the lack of support of Darren Aronofsky. Sean is a huge fan of his. It’s that I’ve yet to find someone to sponsor our theater tickets. Thoughts/notes follow.
You may recall a big brouhaha upon the theatrical release of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2014). The film was not made by Christian filmmakers, which meant that while Noah promised to be an entertaining, well-made film, it couldn’t possibly be made correctly. Of course the film was not going to be a literal translation from the Christian Bibles. For one, it would have been terribly awkward going around calling the women “Noah’s wife” or “Mrs. Noah” or the complete dramatic spoiler “Miss Soon-to-be-Shem’s-wife.” The film expands beyond the borders of the immediate text in other intriguing ways as well. And yet it finds us returning again and again to the heart of its narrative.
Noah begins by laying some historical contexts. We get Noah as a young boy having come of age to receive the blessing of his father. A part of his heritage is the story of the Creation. The creation of the world is spoken in the language of days while the visuals depict its evolution in entrancing time-lapsed footage–until we arrive in the garden. The glowing silhouettes of the two humans hold them in androgynous, race-less abstraction. The pomegranate-like fruit (which predates the apple in earlier stories) pulsates like a heart. The serpent is also of a striking vibrancy; provocative in the shedding of its skin. It is this skin that passes through generations as the legacy of the fall. Another symbolic reminder at play is the tool-turned-weapon—a symbol Noah comes to inhabit himself.
A primary conflict in the film narrative is that of offspring, of two brothers at odds to the point of mutual destruction, as well as the harm inherited by the third. After Cain kills Abel (depicted in the surreal, dream-like effect of a story carried on in the imagination of its inheritors), Cain is sent away and it is the younger brother Seth who carries the line of Adam forward. It is Seth who is the remnant, carving out a life that is modeled after the Creator’s will. Noah (Russell Crowe) is a descendant of Seth who becomes increasing threatened by the encroaching hoards of Cain’s offspring led by Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone). The encroachment of boundaries is echoed in Ham (Nolan Gross, Logan Lerman) the middle-son’s increasing curiosity and boundary pushing.
Cain’s offspring have devastated the earth. Taking pity on mankind after the fall, the Watchers defy heaven and become marooned on and disfigured by the earth. The figures of light remind the viewer of the first human’s own transfiguring fall from light to earth-form language. The Watchers use their superior knowledge and strength to help advance civilization so that it may not only survive, but thrive. They are of benefit to Cain’s race of men who find ways to pervert and weaponize, their blood-lust symbolized by their carnivorous turn and abuse/trafficking of women.
Led by Tubal-cain in the present generation, man does not leave much for God to “destroy.” The violence of their greedy consumption is nauseating, and enraging. It is of the writing, direction, and Winstone’s credit that the film is able to wring some semblance of pity for the about-to-be-drowned nation of men. Tubal-cain is not an unbeliever, but he does interpret notions differently than Noah.
How humans negotiate ambiguity aka choice or freewill is a point of fascination in the film. The dreams appear as gestures, but Noah interprets with such clarity of mind. As Methuselah imparts to Noah in counsel, “He speaks to you. You must trust that He speaks in a way that you can understand.” As the film progresses, Aronofsky layers the narrative in complications: we are to wonder at the Creator’s wrath, mercy and grace; likewise, humankind’s. “How is this Just!” Naameh calls out. How does one truly know the right way, and is there only one right way? Mixed herein is the question of creative license—which is genius in such a controversial undertaking as the film has proven to be.
What is not left to an inquiry of faith-based proportion is the treatment of the planet, each other, of women, and of the future.
A powerful image is struck when Noah, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and their three young boys are travelling to seek the advice of grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins). They encounter an encampment with the bodies left for dead after a raid. It is the site of this stripped mine (stripped of fire-making ore) where they find the lone survivor, Ila (Skylar Burke, Emma Watson). Amid the bodies of a land violently made barren, young Ila bears a deep cut at the womb and is likewise made barren. The connection is not one to ignore as Ila will carry the symbolic burden of the earth, aching to be remembered, to reproduce, and to be treated with mercy.
One of the many intriguing dramatic departures the narrative takes is in not providing mates for all of the sons. Noah claims that the Creator brought the animals in reproductively viable groupings, he will do the same for the sons. But the film has already begun to assert a troublesome cleft between humankind and Nature. As members of the clan of the Created (Seth), they seem to be a part of Nature, where Man (ala Cain) is not. Yet as the film hastens toward the flood, Noah identifies as Man more than Created; which of course provokes all kinds of issues on the boat.
Even as Noah shifts his perspective toward self-identified obscenity, Ila is gifted with the return of her nativity with birth and nature. His mind is set toward death, hers on the hope of life and each become quite adamant in their beliefs.
Ila’s awakening and fertility are products of an intervention by Naameh and Methuselah. The marks of Noah’s change throughout the story is exemplified in how he treats woman and child. He is tender, affectionate, protective, listens to and is partnered by woman and child at his initial characterization. We are confronted with something else near the end. What defines the actions that withhold a fatal blow of the blade (yes, Abraham/Isaac came to mind here), he confesses is love. He felt love, not hatred, a defining characteristic between Noah and Tubal-cain whose own threat of violence is without question. Of course, Tubal-cain language is that of villain, fraught with terms of dominion over a subjugated creation, “We are men. We decide who lives and dies.”
Tubal-cain’s refusal to submit to his punishment is another way he is placed at odds with Noah. But it is a conflict Noah will experience with other characters as well, wife included. Of course, punishment has many forms, and while it may appear at first that the deluge functions as a means of escape for the Noah family, according to Noah there is still a reckoning. Or is there still time and space for an act of grace to intervene. (Frankly, what this looks like in its entirety is left rather appropriately to question marks.)
Between the extremes of Noah and Tubal-cain are the young people. The three sons embody the tenuous balance of loyalty/desire (Shem), kindness/covetousness (Ham), and integrity/lives only to please (Japheth); Naameh identifying the virtues, Noah fretting over the other. What is pleasurable in a film necessarily concerned about life, death and (re)production, is how the defining worth of the person can be found beyond their reproductive organs. Believing this, somehow, has become a test of faith.
It is of significant note, too, that only the completed blessings are bestowed upon female characters, the males interrupted: Methuselah blesses Ila (the wife of the eldest son); Noah blesses Ila’s daughters.
The repetitions and doublings of brothers, of orphans, of symbolic burdens emphasize the repeatable nature of history. The past finds echoes in the present-day of the film narrative, and the present-day of the audience. The final echo is in how, like Cain before him, Ham leaves home. Ham did not murder his brother, but he does violate other sanctified relationships and you feel the weight of not only broken covenants, but his profound disillusionment. We are left to our optimism or pessimism where Ham is concerned, but we see in the patriarch Noah the opportunity for a second chance. He chooses mercy and love and is restored to his nurturing relationship as a father and grandfather.
Despite all of the literal departures from the Christian’s Bible story, what it returns is the grievous nature of man’s propensity toward violence, its image of choice in the film: the annihilation of innocents in the form of murder and rape. Sins against the Creator/created are given a form that is undeniable in its evocation of anger and despair. Aronofsky subtly differentiates between the destruction wielded by the Creator and that which is wielded by Men is in the use of water (a cleansing, purifying symbol in the film) and fire (destructive in its all-consuming nature) respectively. However, he does not shy away from the conflict but rather reinforces the scope and scale the story deserves; escalating in humankind’s desperation for mercy and redemption alongside its grasping for greater power and resources.
In Noah (2014), Darren Aronofsky proves not only true to form as a gifted and provocative storyteller, but fearless in returning to the fore an old and powerful narrative* worth contemplating in our present cultural ontexts, regardless of religious alliances.
*which I would like to note was recorded from an oral tradition (as Noah demonstrates for the viewers), Moses having recorded it later.
of note: Sean and I both loved the heroic Methuselah of the Watcher’s story.
Noah (2014); Director & Writer Darren Aronofsky w/ writer Ari Handel; editing Andrew Weisblum; cinematography by Matthew Libatique; Music Clint Mansell; executive producers Chris Brigham & Handel; producers Aronofsky, Scott Franklin, Amy Herman, Arnon Milchan & Mary Parent. Regency Enterprises & Protozoa Pictures; Paramount Pictures.
Starring: Russell Crowe (Noah), Jennifer Connelly (Naameh), Ray Winstone (Tubal-cain), Anthony Hopkins (Methuselah), Emma Watson (Ila), Logan Lerman (Ham), Douglas Booth (Shem) & Leo McHugh Carroll (Japheth).
Rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and brief suggestive content. Running time 138 minutes.