CINEMA: by Symeon J. ThompsonNews Weekly
How 'subversive' is Darren Aronofsky's Noah?
, April 26, 2014
Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is a fascinating, and controversial, exercise in cinematic re-presentation. The commentary surrounding it illustrates how the attitudes that one has, influence how one views a work of art.
Noah (Russell Crowe) receives visions from the Creator portending that the world is to be flooded to cleanse it of its iniquity. Noah believes himself tasked with the rescuing of the innocents, i.e., the animals, and proceeds to build an ark for their survival and that of his family. Helping him are the Watchers — angelic beings trapped in rocky bodies for going against the Creator.
The movie is very much a Darren Aronofsky film. All his works are pervaded with a keen awareness that actions have consequences, that “the wages of sin is death”. Using complex cinematography and editing, he fills his movies with intricate symbolism and evocative imagery, but they offer more questions than answers. They are explorations of persons and events, not didactic exercises that can be reduced to a simple meaning.
All the criticisms of this film come down to the claim that it is somehow “subversive”. This view seems to depend on the film not doing what the critics expect it to do.
Noah is not environmentalist propaganda, unless one ignores that the original account itself is about saving the animals and wiping out humanity.
The charge that the film is un-Biblical and un-Christian implies that the filmmakers are operating from a Christian basis. Darren Aronofsky and his co-writer Ari Handel come from conservative Jewish backgrounds. Their basis is that of the Jewish tradition, specifically the practice of midrash, a form of rabbinical exegetical method.
The Jewish Tanakh and the Christian Old Testament are not identical books. They operate, and are understood, from fundamentally different perspectives.
The midrash is the Jewish practice of using imagination and non-canonical sources to flesh out and understand the scriptural story. This is much like the way that non-Biblical traditions, or artworks that depict Mary Magdalene, are used to flesh out New Testament stories.
The key charge against Noah is that of “subversion”. All the criticisms, when brought together, claim that the movie exists to undermine the Western religious tradition. Some commentators have gone so far as to claim an anti-Christian Jewish conspiracy lies at the heart of the film.
The most lucid, and referenced, critique is that of Brian Mattson. Dr Mattson identifies the questionable imagery in the film and makes a compelling case that (un)intentionally its makers were seeking to “subvert” the essential story.
His argument hinges on two points: that by drawing on esoteric tradition, such as the Kabbala — which the filmmakers do not deny — the film cannot but be subversive, and that the screening of the film for religious leaders was a deliberate exercise to achieve their endorsement.
Noah is not an orthodox retelling from any perspective, and so the enthusiasm shown in some circles is a bit odd. Even the Jewish community, which is happy to see a Jewish Bible story, not a Christian one, onscreen has been critical. But the movie wasn’t intended as an exercise in piety. Aronofsky even joked that it was the “least Biblical Bible movie ever made”.
It seems more likely that the film-makers didn’t want to offend religious audiences, while not compromising their vision, which actually seems rather admirable.
The whole “subversion” claim is reminiscent of a critique recently levelled at the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. A lecture has been doing the rounds online that argues that his fantasy fiction is, if not occult, then at least a gateway to it. The critique is worthy of consideration as Tolkien did use both pagan mythology and Christian ideas to form his work. However, it is very popular in Christian circles.
But the justification for deeming Noah subversive, like Dr Mattson’s critique, is fundamentally flawed. It argues that “influences” are equivalent with “intentions”. Furthermore, it sees stories as being little more than the expression of their author’s beliefs, and that these beliefs can be distilled to a simple formula.
Stories express ideas, but they do so through the medium of persons acting. They do not lend themselves to being reduced to simple models, at least if they are to be properly understood. Story-makers take all that has influenced them and re-combine them to make something new.
Noah has been made by two intelligent, sensitive humanists/atheists who were raised as Jews, and who have a keen sense of the effects of wickedness. This is their attempt to flesh out and explore a pivotal human story.
They have sought to explore what sort of man Noah might have been and what sort of impact such a cataclysm would have. They’ve sought to depict aspects of Jewish lore in a movie and make sense of a deeply difficult story. It is a movie worthy of reflection and discussion.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).