Thank God (seriously) for Darren Aronofsky.
In his flawed, fascinating and altogether extraordinary “Noah,” this ever-audacious filmmaker has given us a bold and singular vision of Old Testament times — a picture that dares to handle a sacred text not with the clunky messages and stiff pieties we’ve come to expect from so much so-called “Christian cinema,” but rather with a thrilling sense of personal investment and artistic risk. Crucially, Aronofsky approaches Scripture not with a purist’s reverence but with a provocateur’s respect, teasing out the hard, soul-searching questions that the Word of God, if you take it as such (and I do), was always meant to inspire. He has made a gravely powerful, fully committed, sometimes blisteringly angry film that will fit few Christians’ preconceptions of what a biblical epic should look, sound or feel like, and believe me when I say that this is cause not for condemnation, but for honest rejoicing.
Certainly it’s safe to say that at least a few Paramount executives are popping champagne corks — or, at the very least, heaving sighs of relief — in light of the news that “Noah,” after weathering months of iffy pre-release chatter, opened this weekend to an impressive $77.6 million worldwide ($44 million Stateside), some of which was surely driven not just by widespread curiosity, but also by largely favorable reviews. It should be noted that several of those recommendations were written by critics for Christian publications — many of whom, while eloquent and enthusiastic in their praise, understandably took pains to assure their readers that they could buy a ticket to “Noah” with a clear conscience, without fearing that they were somehow sullying their God-fearing minds in the process.
As my friend Brett McCracken wrote for the Christian cultural magazine Converge: “Aronofsky may not himself be a believer, but his film respects belief and engages with it without hostility or condescension. I hope believers will engage Aronofsky’s film in the same way.” I couldn’t have put it better myself, although I’m grateful that, as someone writing for a largely secular audience, I rarely have to explain to readers why they should welcome a film that challenges rather than coddles; that generates questions rather than answers; that brings us into sympathetic identification with a deeply flawed protagonist; and that forces us to grapple with the very idea of faith and exactly what it’s good for.
All of which “Noah” accomplishes, rather remarkably. Feverish and beautiful, sometimes grandiose but always deeply felt, borderline playful yet undeniably sincere in its engagement with its source material, Aronofsky’s film is a marvelously fluid creation, and easily the class act so far among a recent spate of religious-themed movies that includes “Son of God” and “God’s Not Dead” (and will continue this year with “Heaven Is for Real,” “Left Behind” and “Exodus”). The invaluable lesson of “Noah” is that a sincere and authentic film about religious faith need not be strident, heavy-handed or unimaginative; nor must it cleave to the very letter of Scripture, timidly and reverently, in order to get at its deeper truths and insights. However it fares commercially from here, and whatever culture wars are waged in its name, “Noah” feels, at this moment, like a triumph and a breakthrough — a film that brings a well-worn story to such vivid and unpredictable dramatic life that we are compelled to take its characters seriously and grapple with their dilemmas anew. It is the biblical epic that Christian audiences, whether they realize it or not, have long deserved and waited for.
In its breathtaking sweep and ambition, as well as its bottomless humanity, “Noah” makes an utter joke of all the unexamined attacks, the politically slanted dismissals and, yes, that staggeringly inane Faith Driven Consumer poll that Variety reported on back in February, which asked Christian audiences if they would feel satisfied with a movie that “replaces the Bible’s core message with one created by Hollywood.” There’s a major misconception in the framing of that question, and it’s the notion that Hollywood — a sprawling, financially driven, morally pluralistic entity that employs believers and nonbelievers alike — has a single monolithic agenda when it comes to moviegoers of faith. If there is a common attitude with regard to that widely misunderstood and highly coveted audience, it has generally been a tendency to woo and pander, rather than to startle and offend.
Fortunately, Aronofsky is not Hollywood, or even a stand-in for Hollywood. Given his recent tussles with Paramount over creative control of the picture, and also perhaps the apt comparisons that have been drawn between “Noah” and Martin Scorsese’s far more contentious “The Last Temptation of Christ,” Aronofsky is and perhaps always will be a consummate studio outsider — the sort of filmmaker who, even coming off an Oscar nomination and $329 million in worldwide box office for “Black Swan,” and working on a scale and budget far in excess of anything he’s done before, maintains a principled distance from the system and hews relentlessly to his own creative path.
Watching “Noah,” which makes a few concessions to epic fantasy/blockbuster conventions without sacrificing its fundamental seriousness and moral urgency, you get the feeling that Aronofsky (who wrote the script with his regular collaborator Ari Handel) read the Genesis account of Noah’s life and saw in it, perhaps, a vessel for some of the themes and obsessions that have haunted him his entire career. This is a director whose characters often know they are destined for greatness, but for whom greatness proves a terrible burden; to watch “Noah” is to recognize the tortured sensibility behind the lurching attempts at transcendence in “The Fountain,” the unnerving altered states of “Requiem for a Dream,” the brutal physical and spiritual sacrifices endured by the protagonists of “The Wrestler” and “Black Swan.” You also sense that Aronofsky realized there was a place for his anguished dramatics and trippy aesthetics in the annals of great religious artwork, and that there was no reason why the challenge of biblical interpretation should be off-limits to a filmmaker just because he happens to be a staunch environmentalist, a brilliant fantasist and, yes, a self-avowed atheist.
All of this should trouble the sort of Christian, I suppose, who imagines that the proper care of the Earth is strictly the domain of those godless liberal tree-huggers; that our readings of the Bible should never stir in us a sense of wonder or supernatural possibility; and that the only artists who could possibly extract anything of value from a religious text are those who readily subscribe to its teachings. To believe such a thing, of course, is to ignore one of the great recurring themes of Scripture, which is that God can and does use the most unlikely of individuals to glorify His name and advance His purposes, and is indeed rather fond of subverting our prejudices about who and what is good, moral and worthy of emulation.
Those prejudices are exactly what “Noah” is targeting, not least through the figure of Noah himself — who, as superbly played by Russell Crowe, subtly morphs from a dutiful servant of the Creator into a very human monster with a terrifying streak of delusional megalomania. Entrusted with mankind’s survival, Noah casts himself as mankind’s executioner; having lost all hope in humanity, he comes to believe that God has given up hope as well. Aronofsky isn’t trying to smear an unassailable Old Testament hero here: He’s simply acknowledging the universal human capacity for goodness and evil, compassion and indifference, while also suggesting how men in the grip of God-given convictions can be lured to the brink of madness and beyond. And the director takes pains to shows us how that madness comes about, in a crucial scene that peers, alongside Noah, deeply into the abyss of clawing, festering human depravity: Watching it, you almost come to understand exactly why even a magnanimous Creator might find a cataclysmic flood to be not merely the just response, but also the merciful one.
Time and again in “Noah,” you sense Aronofsky searching for that sympathetic middle ground, not least in a quietly stunning evocation of the origins of the universe that, like a similar sequence in Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” generously bridges the ideological gap between creation and evolution. This is a film far more determined to stir and provoke than to offend — and, in its own way, to do what teachers and ministers the world over have done for centuries, which is to illuminate an ancient story in order to explore its applicability to the present. For those willing to watch and listen, “Noah” speaks powerfully to our morally confused times, predicated as it is on the existence of a God who can nonetheless feel painfully absent in the midst of human suffering. This is a world where miracles are readily observable and giant rock monsters walk the earth (presented with a disarming matter-of-factness entirely in keeping with the story’s prediluvian mythology), yet where the knowledge of God’s supremacy does not alleviate the often unfathomable burden of following Him — or, indeed, ensure that anyone will want to follow Him at all.
Aronofsky has proudly declared “Noah” to be “the least biblical film ever made.” To which I would humbly suggest that this brilliant filmmaker and deranged visionary may not be, in this particular instance, the most honest or reliable assessor of his own work. Aronofsky’s appreciation of Scripture can be selective and apocryphal, but it’s also wide-ranging and astute, treating the slender account of Noah’s ark as a sort of narrative prism through which the entire book of Genesis can be dramatically filtered, from Adam and Eve to Abraham and Isaac. And yet the director also has an eye for the most quietly haunting of textual details, as when he dramatizes a lesser-known but significant detail from Noah’s life, well after the flood has subsided, in which the old man falls down, drunk and naked, and his son Ham looks upon him with contempt.
It’s a piece of Scripture that has called forth no shortage of competing interpretations, and the one that Aronofsky offers up is beautifully simple and compassionate: Whether in the world that has passed away or in the one that is still to come, human beings will never find themselves beyond the need for mercy. Not least among the revelations in this “least biblical” of epics is that it’s an Old Testament story that looks forward, in a spirit of hushed and hopeful anticipation, toward the New.