Noah: Deluge-onal or Buoy Genius?

I’ve just returned from watching Darron Aronofsky’s adaptation of Noah, and I’ve got a lot to say. I ask your pardon, in the middle of this review, my wife gave birth to a beautiful son, so this was written quickly in two separate sessions. If I have a few disjointed thoughts, I blame in on first night of sleep with a new baby.

On to the review!

Spoiler #1 There’s a big flood that covers the Earth.
Spoiler #2 When it’s over, only Noah’s family survives.
Are you surprised?

Now, before I get into my impressions of the film, let me set up a few caveats. This is a very nuanced and subtle film. In many ways, it would be beneficial to educate yourself with spoilers before you go, otherwise the deeper meaning of many scenes may be utterly missed. I honestly can’t say how I would have viewed the film if I had not researched the film first.

Before viewing the film I read several excellent reviews from diverse sources, including several from the Catholic, Steven Greydanus, one from Methodist, Dr. Lawson Stone, Several from Orthodox, Peter Chattaway including his excellent response to the extreme claim of that the film contained Gnostic elements, a claim also rebuffed by Ryan Holt. You won’t get through their reviews without a few details being given away, but I found that far from “spoiling” the film, knowing some of the details actually enhanced my enjoyment of the film.

There are fantastical elements of the film that many see as an attempt to give the story a blockbuster element. However, Aronofsky is not a blockbuster kind of director. Each of these ‘crazy’ elements was thoughtfully added with strong basis in one of his source texts.

Aronofsky’s Noah is not confined to the two speaking lines attributed to him in scripture (in fact, he doesn’t even say those two lines in the film), nor is he confined to the four chapters of Genesis the flood account occupies. No, Aronofsky’s Noah extends from the book of Genesis to the books of Enoch and Jubilees, and into ancient rabbinic texts. It is a thoroughly Jewish retelling of the story (a story that belonged to them long before Christianity adopted it).

Not only does Noah wander freely from one flood narrative to another (traditional midrash, rabbinic writings, Enoch, Jubilees, and Genesis), he also wanders freely throughout the other early stories of Genesis, foreshadowing not only the tower of Babel and its origins, but of Abraham and his fateful choice as well.

It bears a little of the angst found in Fiddler on the Roof, “I know we’re your chosen people, but couldn’t you choose someone else for a while?” The story is darker than would be the Christian telling. It reminds me of a thoroughly depressing, but deeply moving film “Sarah’s Key.” It doesn’t shy away from the dark elements of humanity, or from the seeming hopelessness of trying to live a righteous life in a thoroughly corrupt culture. When the film does offer hope, it is only the faintest glimmer, the distant but compelling hope of freedom and forgiveness, of healed relationships and a redeemed earth.

If you are looking for the redemption to be blatant and triumphal, you’ll be sorely disappointed. The redemption Noah offers and is offered is small and fragile, like a new plant just breaking through the ground. You get the sense that it could be snuffed out at any moment. Hope is there, fragile and intimate, small and nuanced, but definitely there. Noah struggles with the inscrutability of God. We witness the effects of an internal battle that takes place over the course of the film – He is resolved to obey God regardless of the command, but struggles to understand the terrible visions of Judgement he is receiving. He is deeply burdened by the knowledge that he is capable of being just as wicked as the rest of the world. This dichotomy sets up the climactic action of the film. Throughout the film Noah repeats that God is just, and so he is resolved to do what he perceives must be done, even though it is at odds with his heart. However, it is revealed to him what we already know, that God will not abandon him to do that which he should not do.

One of the things I love about this film is that it doesn’t try to thrust Noah into a more modern concept of interacting with God. Noah lived just ten generations after Adam, he predated Abraham, Moses, David, and Christ. We who live on this side of the Cross, who have seen Christ, and therefore have seen the Father, have difficulty imagining a time when God was not explicitly revealed to us. But for Noah, he only knew that God created, that Adam was ordained to be a caretaker, and that humanity was cursed to work by the sweat of his brow.

We see in Genesis the words “God said” to Noah, and expect that he was audible, thorough, and clear. However, I’ve never experienced God speaking to me in this way, and frankly none of the historic Christian Mystics have experienced God speaking in this way either. God reveals one small element of his will to me, and then waits for me to obey it before revealing the next part. He may wait until I’m just about to fail before he gently, and sometimes imperceptibly, redirects my course. There are times where I am tortured in my mind and my soul trying to discern the will of God. There are certainly times, when I find that I’ve missed God’s will that I feel not a rush of relief, but a heaviness of sorrow for having misunderstood something that in retrospect appears so simple. In this film, Noah experiences God just as I would, through dreams, urges, and shots in the dark.

I am reminded here of the prayer by Thomas Merton where he says,

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

This could just as easily have been written by me or by Aronofsky’s Noah.

Some have been troubled that Noah was not a more heroic character, but Genesis tells us he was righteous “in his time,” which only means that compared to the rest of humanity, he wasn’t all that bad – keep in mind that the rest of humanity caused God to decide to destroy the earth with a flood. Noah isn’t portrayed in the film or in scripture as being a man of heroic virtue, he is portrayed as being a man of heroic obedience.

Aronofsky attempted to tell us what kind of man Noah might be. What kind of personality might be able to obey God with such resolve? To Aronofsky, the answer is simple. Noah is a stoic man who rarely shows emotion, and when he does it is not extravagant. Both affection and displeasure are expressed in muted tones through the whole first act. Later when his expressions are more animated they are the result of the crushing weight of his aforementioned internal battle.

How would we expect a man to react who just participated in the death of the whole human race? The first story in scripture after the flood is of Noah’s drunkenness. I’ve always taken that to be a one time occurrence. However, Aronofsky imagines a man overcome both by what he has done and what he hasn’t done, a man overcome by a sense of failure for disobeying God, who isolates himself and drowns his failure in drink. This is a huge image, and is apparently the lasting image some filmgoers leave with. However, in the middle of that crushing darkness there is a small, but piercing light of hope. It is this small gesture, and not the flood – this gesture and not the family crisis – that serves as the linchpin for understanding the film. We see it first through the wife of Shem, and then through Noah’s wife – mercy is first offered after so much justice. This could be seen as a prototype of Mary. It certainly is an elevation of the feminine voice in the film. Just as the fall came through Eve, so the redemptive voice in this Noah account comes from the women. This penultimate scene happens so quickly that it is understandable that many miss it, due to oppressive darkness that precedes it.

In the final scene we see Noah again take his place as patriarch of the family, not in harsh justice as before, but in nurturing mercy. This is the redemption of the film. For so much of the film Noah was immersed so deeply in the justice of God that he could not see a way forward, but in the end, having been washed in mercy, he speaks for God one last time, “Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth.”

Just in case you aren’t sure that mercy really is the message of the film, the credits begin to roll to the words “Mercy is as mercy does.”

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