' Cinema Romantico: Noah

Monday, April 14, 2014

Noah

The ark has been erected. The animals have been loaded. The rain starts to fall. Thus, Noah (Russell Crowe) looks to the sky, and as he does, the camera pulls straight up above him. And it keeps going, up through the troposphere and the stratosphere and the mesosphere and the thermosphere and the exosphere and then, finally, into space, where the whole of Earth is revealed as covered in a colossal storm. It's a remarkable moment because we are more or less seeing The Great Flood as detailed in Genesis in the form of a satellite image that might be consulted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. It's creationism seen through the prism of science.

When I think of Biblical Epics, I think of the school of Cecil B. DeMille, the overt pageantry, uber-blocked scenes and VistaVision. That approach has been maligned, but, to me, it's always felt appropriate, apropos of the Bible's blocky writing. Then again, the Bible can be a pretty intense place and Darren Aronofsky's "Noah" is not the whimsical doves and rainbows version of youth Sunday School lessons. Instead it is a genuine glimpse into the dark heart of the Old Testament, "real wrath of God type stuff", to quote Ray Stantz. DeMille is left in the dust.


The landscapes, as photographed by Aronofsky's usual accomplice Matthew Libatique, are rocky, burnt-out and apocalyptic. It's almost "Mad Max"-ish, an unexpected if appropriate comparison because "Mad Max" may well have opened with a title card that declared "And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt." As the film opens, Noah and his wife (Jennifer Connelly, who mostly stands by but occasionally is allowed to show gumption) and his sons, are essentially in hiding, holdouts of severe piety in a world gone wicked. Plagued by visions that he can't quite make sense of, though able to sense they foretell doom, Noah packs up the family and travels to see his aging grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins). It is then that he receives clarity - the Great Flood is on its way to wipe the whole world clean of its impurity. He will pack an enormous ark full of animals two by two - all of whom curiously, if conveniently, spend most of the film asleep - and re-begin the world when the water recedes.

Noah's story as told in the Bible is surprisingly short on specifics, and while this film is true to some of those specifics, it is less apt to pay heed to others. It creates rock monsters, christened as "searchers", evoking more ornery Ents of "The Two Towers", BC-era "Transformers" that seem out of place, as if demanded by producers who needed toy figure tie-ins. And while Tubal Cain (Ray Winstone) is mentioned briefly in Genesis, "Noah" transforms him into William Fichtner of "The Perfect Storm", existing solely to add extra conflict aboard the wooden vessel and provide an explicit villain in human form.

So too does Aronofsky's script, co-written with Ari Handel, appropriate the story of Abraham and Isaac, re-purposing it through an invented granddaughter (Emma Watson) for Noah who becomes pregnant while at sea (snuffing out that whole 40 days and 40 nights thing). This invention, however, ultimately works to underscore the film's foremost and most interesting relationship - that is, God and Noah.

God Himself is never heard from in this movie. "Why won't you talk to me?" demands Tubal Cain. "Why won't you answer me?" cries Noah. In the Genesis passages that give birth to the film, God is a main character, speaking plainly ("So God said...") and issuing direct commands. In Aronofsky's film, both the audience and Noah's family are left to take Noah at his word. In this way, the character could easily (controversially?) be read as a self-declared prophet, an ancient twist on Harold Camping, one who claims to be in contact with The Creator and asking those around him to have faith.


That faith becomes more difficult to follow the longer the rains fall and the waves crash. Noah literally turns his back on humanity, ignoring screaming innocents who cling to rocks in the distance because he believes their sins have deservedly engendered their deaths. Yet, as the ark remains afloat and the less likely "Land Ho!" becomes, the more Noah cracks, becoming convinced God's intention was to kill off man entirely and give Earth back to the animals. Crowe plays this frightfully to the hilt, willingly alienating his family, convincingly demonstrating a prophet's emotional toll and illustrating how a prophet might seem demented to all those who can't comprehend what he claims to know.

Regardless of whether or not a film should be judged on the basis of itself alone, each audience member, Christian or not, is likely to bring pre-conceived notions to "Noah", not apart from how a reader of a novel adapted for screen might bring a certain amount of bias for and preexistent knowledge of the source material. If we grow up hearing this Bible story, as I did, we might assume that Noah is in direct contact with The Creator. But Aronofsky presents the material so as to leave that question open to interpretation.

Aboard the ark in the midst of the crushing, cleansing deluge of rain, Noah gathers his family together and recounts The Creation, a means to calm them much like an "Arrested Development" re-run might calm us in the face of a CNN-touted weather apocalypse. As he tells it, however, Aronofsky employs an incredible bout of time-lapse photography to illustrate it, the light and the darkness, the heaven and the earth, the water and the dry land, the creatures and man. It's akin to Terrence Malick's work in "Tree of Life", but more than that it's "Noah" combining legitimate Biblical passages with the sort of camera work that a proponent of The Big Bang Theory might utilize in a slide show. Evolution or Creationism? That's not the point. We're all invited into this $125 million ark and made to wonder whether such a catastrophic downpour is the work of meteorology or the divine.

The story of Noah is doubtlessly rooted in religion, but Darren Aronofsky's "Noah", spectacular, bloated and bold, is not so much ecumenical as it is universal.

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