Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Aronofsky’s “Noah” and the Flood This Time Around

“Why did God kill everybody — the animals, too?” my rector’s five-year old daughter Sarah asked him when he had finished reading her the usual kiddie version of Noah: adorable animals, jokes about crowding and smells, and a rainbow at the end. “I don’t like that story!” she declared.

Not what he expected; but the five-year old really got the dark and horrific side of the story the “cutesy animal” story was at pains to minimize. All of humanity gone. Kaput. Swept away. Exterminated. The animals, too. All except Noah’s family and menagerie.

Director Darren Aronofsky gets that horrific side and much more in this stark re-telling of the biblical legend—a film more creatively faithful to the core message of the original Noah story than any literal, verse-by-verse depiction of the story could ever be

Fundamentalist agita vs. creative interpretation

Fundamentalist critics fume about “departures” from the Bible: the inclusion (from the rich trove of ancient Jewish midrash—interpretive story-telling) of the Watchers, or fallen angels; Noah’s character as morally ambiguous, even dangerously flawed; and (horrors!) a retelling of the creation story that dares show the universe and all life evolving. To add insult to injury, the story has been “hijacked” by an “environmentalist agenda.”

Bravo! say I. Aronofsky has created his own bold Noah midrash for our times, set in a mythic and miraculous landscape, lest it be mistaken for literal history.

At the film’s beginning, he rather brazenly states a warning about our own Flood, our impending environmental apocalypse: “Cain founded an industrial civilization that progressively devoured the earth.” Oil wells and dark cities appear. A literal translation of Genesis itself says that humanity had “wrecked its way on earth, and wrecked the earth,” so he’s on good ground. Think fracking. 

Impending floods—then and now

I saw “Noah” yesterday, just after reading about the latest U.N. report listing the dire effects of climate change already apparent on island nations, low-lying countries like Bangladesh, crop failures, coral reef death and population displacement. This leaves aside the quieter and far darker side of our earth-devouring civilization: massive destruction of species habitat and the death of countless species—with more to come.

After such a blatant start, the film becomes more nuanced and subtle. The righteous Noah is not all good. His adversary, Tubal-cain, a descendant of murderous Cain, spouts muscular market-place bromides about domination and the power of human enterprise. His part in the plot, however, eventually creates an ambiguous foil to Noah’s rigid, and eventually murderous righteousness, and leads toward the eventual triumph of mercy over justice. 

Massive destruction can be very real

And, oh yes, all of humanity dies like flies. You can read about it in the Bible or see it this week on the big screen. Stark, horrific, though not particularly gory. 

Just as horrific, in its own way, as a West Coast mudslide exterminating a whole neighborhood, one built on dangerous land compromised by clear-cut logging. Dozens died like flies. Happens a lot on planet earth, that stuff. The Bible is full of warnings about the greed and selfishness, the governmental negligence and corruption that lead to some of “that stuff.” More of it to come, according to the U.N. Report: the death of tens of thousands and more.

Aronsky’s got it right—the Word for our day, that is. The bible-thumpers are so wrapped up in the literal details of their long-ago tale that they can’t even hear what the Spirit might say to them through it in our own day.

Read some intelligent reviews here:
+ Fred and Mary Ann Brussat in Spirituality and Practice at http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/films/films.php?id=26175
+ "Who Gets to Decide if Noah's Biblical?" in Religion Dispatches at http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/atheologies/7741/who_gets_to_decide_if_noah_is_biblical
+ "Noah vs. A Kitschy Jesus: A Tale of Two Movies" in Religion Dispatches at http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/culture/7729/noah_v__kitschy_jesus__a_tale_of_two_movies/

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