This article first appeared on newrepublic.com
First, let’s get this straight: there is no literal way to read the Bible. Everyone interprets, and anyone who tells you different has a church he wants you to join. So all the religious hubbub over Darren Aronofsky’s Noah – the National Religious Broadcasters getting the studio to add a disclaimer, the ban in several Gulf nations, the claim that the director “superimposed” an “anti-Christian” message – is just predictable political posturing.
If you’re going to make a movie of a Bible story, you’re going to need to fill in some major gaps. Genesis mentions Noah’s kids, but not his wife. How did that happen? We know that God had to flood the earth to punish humanity’s wickedness, but the mass graves are invisible. After Noah saves the world, the next thing he does is get drunk and naked, and curse his sons. What’s that about? The more interesting question is not “Did he add stuff?” but “What did he add, and why?” Impressively, Aronofsky’s interpretation manages to stay “true” both to the messiness of the Old Testament and to his own directorial sensibilities.
Nobody captures the essential human conflict between good and evil like Aronofsky. Diverse as his films have been, Aronofsky always insists on putting his characters through extraordinarily demanding dilemmas, asking them to make deals with the devil. Think of washed-up Randy “The Ram” Robinson in The Wrestler, Natalie Portman’s fatally ambitious ballerina in Black Swan, and, well, everyone in Requiem for a Dream.
In the story of Noah, Aronofsky has found the quintessential thought experiment: if God asked you to save the world, but lose your soul, would you do it? What kind of person is able to save the animal kingdom and his own family, but leave the rest of humanity to drown? The deal this time is with God, but that doesn’t mean Noah suffers less pain. When he sees that even his own sons are impure, which means that all humans contain both good and evil, which means that his agreement to leave thousands of people behind amounts to mass murder; the realisation hits him like a stone to the gut. But he knows he has to proceed with the Ark; this is the Old Testament after all, where God, is less concerned with redemption than with loyalty and obedience. So Noah makes a decision that turns him into the villain for a good bit of the film. There’s a moment with a knife and a baby that I won’t say any more about. Still, what makes Aronofsky’s moviemaking compelling is his unwillingness to judge the tortured souls that populate his films.
But what makes Noah different from most of his movies is its enormity. True, there are plenty of Aronofsky’s trademark claustrophobia-inducing close-up shots of Russell Crowe’s sad eyes. But in Noah, Aronofsky also gets to indulge the world-creating tendencies he tested out in his 2006 film The Fountain. (By the way, that less successful Aronofsky film was a prequel to Noah – the story of an original man and a woman creating and recreating their own worlds throughout time. How come the Christian right didn’t get mad about this Garden of Eden story? Because The Fountain didn’t have a big enough budget to get noticed.) Here he zooms out from the action at key moments to show the entire planet, evil spreading like ink through each continent; or, later, wrapped in beautiful storm clouds. The Ark itself is basically a giant wood box, which the film’s crew constructed in a field in Oyster Bay, Long Island. Its bamboo scaffolding was built by the same artists who created “Big Bambu” at the Met, and there’s something heartbreaking about watching it tumble about in the waves. During the Flood, there are a couple of shots of the wreckage of such Hieronymus Bosch-like scale and detail that they gave me apocalyptic shivers.
In terms of plot, none of the film’s inventions are explicitly disallowed by Genesis or other biblical texts. (In addition to the Bible, Aronofsky and his co-writer Ari Handel consulted the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Book of Enoch, and the Book of Jubilee, as well as modern scholarly analysis.) The story begins ten generations after Adam and Eve’s exile, and this choice in itself is particularly appropriate. The Flood story completes the creation story in a way. In this movie, God is always referred to as “The Creator” (or “he”), and his chief motivation seems to be to get humans to appreciate what he has made for them. As the Bible’s settings go, the pre-Flood universe is little described and ripe for dramatic life. Paradise has long passed: We are left with a stark, burnt grey landscape interrupted by an occasional green mountain. It’s a rough, unexplored place, more District 12 than, say, The Shire. The gaps leave room for invention – Methuselah’s magical berry cravings, a glowing snakeskin wrapped around the arm in a coming of age ceremony, weird pre-Flood creatures like bearish horses with scales; and don’t get me started on the stone giants who appear to protect Noah and his family from the marauding hordes of the evil Tubal-Cain.
The Watchers, as this movie calls these stone giants, have a direct biblical inspiration, the Nephilim. These larger-than-life creatures, part human, part divine, are described in Genesis 6:4. The exact lineage of the Nephilim is hotly debated in creationist circles. Were they descendants of Adam’s other son, Seth, or were they fallen angels, or some combination thereof? Aronofsky’s interpretationis that they were the beings, made of light, that God created to protect humanity from sin; and when they failed, God punished them by turning them into stone giants. Incidentally, creationist Ken Ham says that this interpretation has “some biblical support.” It is a testament to the creative possibilities of the Bible that two people whose larger visions disagree so sharply could sometimes coincide on the small stuff.
So what, in sum, is Aronofsky’s vision? He has insisted over and over that he is just trying to make blockbuster entertainment, and he has. But underneath the bluster, the flood, the animals, the explosions, there’s a quieter message about the fine line between mercy and justice, about the toll that righteousness takes on us humans. It’s a moving story. And the fact that he’s done his biblical homework makes it that much more so.
This article first appeared on newrepublic.com