Let’s deal with this nagging thing right away: This is a very Western imagining of ancient Mesopotamia. We can talk clothes: Noah’s jean and jean-jacket stylings, Ham’s buzz cut and Naameh’s perfect stray curls. Going deeper, we can talk about how patriarchy becomes individualism and how the youth of Noah’s sons allows for familiar heterosexual coupling tropes. These things are a bit grating.
But I am completely missing the point.
Noah thrives in its brilliant imagination, it’s enlivening of a storybook world nevertheless populated by familiar humans. I found the first half of the film most compelling: a magical, mystical earth where the Creator always manages to appear in new and surprising ways. This is certainly not the story of Noah as I ever envisioned it, yet to me that is the incredible power and necessity of film: through film we are enabled to venture into new worlds as discovered by the imagination of other’s. This is a world of Aronofsky’s conjuring, so of course it is rather Western and the character’s speak English. So what? I must confess I am more intrigued by this project of personal adaptation than a period-piece literalism. All throughout, I wanted so badly to believe that this world could be true.
But I can’t.
I loved Noah for the way it allowed me to imagine, unbridled, an earth freshly created by God. In the end, however, the world of Noah is one that I inhabited tenously, as the film ended and I slowly drifted back to reality I was uncomfortable–dissatisfied both by the strange reality of the film and the familiar reality to which I was returning. In neither do I feel at home.
To me, the movie that has best defined a religious world is Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. The scene of Töre struggling with the young tree has stolen my heart forever. Meditating on it, I am struck by a crucial difference (perhaps the crucial difference) between the trials of Töre and Noah. Both are broad-shouldered, powerful men–the heads of their families–and both commit unspeakable violence, allowing even children to die by their hands. Töre, however, is swept away by his anger; after, he runs from the walls of his home and pulls a tree down to the ground, collapsing on it. No matter how powerful his hands may be, Töre is out of control, he does not have the power to protect his daughter nor the power to right the tragedies that befall him. He, like the tree, is a broken man. He can only lay face-down beneath the sky.
Noah is in some ways the opposite, and here I think Aronofsky departs in meaningful ways from the Scriptures, whose stories I would argue are more akin to the ordeal of Tore I described above. In Aronofsky’s vision, Noah is not only called by the Creator but is empowered by him, given the ability to judge between the wicked and the righteous. To this end, with his family inside, Noah shuts the door, refusing to open it even when begged by his family to save those who are battered by the waves on the peak of rocky outcropping. This wide angle is haunting, terrorizing, and yet I cannot help but feel that in it something fundamental has been changed from the Genesis myth. And I have already alluded to it, in the film Noah opens and shuts the door of the ark, in Genesis it is written that “the LORD shut him in” (NRSV). For this reason, I never get the impression from Genesis that Noah is empowered to decide who will live and die. Indeed, throughout Scripture, it seems that this power is too great for any person to hold. While the arc of Noah is a powerful one; I nevertheless feel it is incomplete in that the Creator seems to reserve little power for himself. Put another way, I cannot understand the relationship between the Creator and Noah, especially how it is portrayed, and Noah receives crystal clear visions at first but then fails to receive any support once inside the ark. This change, however, is never given voice, rather once the ark is shut Noah becomes a stand-in for the Creator, even though it nearly destroys him.
I agree with Aronofsky that the tension between justice and mercy is at the heart of the story of Noah. I also know that it is impossible to film a dialog between God and Noah as written in the pages of Genesis. The reliance on visions in the beginning is a stroke of genius, but I find that the subtle shift from a more external conflict (Noah trying to read the Creator’s will) to a more stereotypically Western internal conflict (Noah trying to decide his own will) is a loss. Still, I cannot wait to view the film again, just to be saturated by its vivid imagination, perhaps the best telling of a biblical myth I’ve ever encountered. My constant struggle with Noah, however, is not that Aronofsky changed the details of the story but that he may have changed the heart of the story, blurring the relationship between Creator and created and creating a Great Man (as the poster can attest) when I find God usually chooses the most humble.