How 'Noah' and Life Imitate Art

Posted: Apr 04, 2014 12:01 AM
How 'Noah' and Life Imitate Art

This isn't the Sunday school epic, but it asks the right questions.

"Noah," the movie, is sometimes described as an equal opportunity religious offender. But that's the narrow view. Various interpretations of the Bible story have changed over the centuries, and this latest one is inspired by the account in the Book of Genesis. The Genesis story is short and rich and challenges the imagination.

Life imitates art in a sea of grief and trouble. As the waters engulf the earth, drowning men, women and children, who cannot think of the mud slides that overran the people in tiny Oso, Wash., with no moral in sight? At a baptism last week in the Pacific Ocean off California, one of the congregation's faithful was swept away by a powerful undertow in the surf. A child asks, in the innocence of tender years, "Why do such things happen?" How deep and mysterious is the Indian Ocean that seems to have swallowed the passengers of Flight 370.

Each generation tries in its own way to explain the unknowable and the ineffable. Darren Aronofsky, the director of "Noah," described wryly as "a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn," does it his way, fusing greater-than-life-size computer-generated images with human actors to ask fundamental questions: What does our moral life learn from catastrophe? How do good and evil frame contemporary arguments?

If you watch the movie with a teenager or a millennial you may discover that what they focus on is very different from what you see before you, but the questions posed are similar. "Noah" reaches for the cosmic meaning in a 21st century way, for tastes attuned to robots, aliens and wild apocalyptic images. This isn't the story we were taught in Sunday school, where pairs of happy, well-behaved animals are gathered by a gentle Noah (portrayed by the actor Russell Crowe).

But no single culture owns the epic of a great flood, where man and animal are saved from extinction by a man battling wind, rain and waves. In 1872, a scholar studied broken tablets with cuneiform inscriptions at the British Museum and shocked the world when he deciphered a similar story of the Great Flood that was 1,000 years older than the account in Genesis. It's "The Epic of Gilgamesh," which many schoolchildren read today.

We don't need the historic Noah to reflect on the underlying truth of his moral dilemmas when confronting a power greater than himself. Following divine law isn't for sissies. Whether the Genesis story of a great flood is literally true, as many millions believe it is, or a metaphorical tale of wonder and woe, it raises questions about free will, obedience and belief. The movie presents spectacle as no other medium can do.

We live in an age where moving pictures have become the instrument for making issues larger than life. Unlike the Renaissance, when a three-dimensional perspective in painting and monumental marble depicted heroic Biblical endeavors, the movies are the dominant media for a broader audience. We hear the sound and see the sight of humanity writ large on the big screen; we see the sweat and dirt of men and women struggling with mental confusion lifted from our fiercest imaginations. We can't turn away.

We feel Noah's pain at the task imposed on him, who in this telling becomes deranged as he carries out instructions from God. He is devoted to his family but turns on those he loves as the task leads him to fanaticism. He berates a child for crushing a flower, but must himself contribute to the destruction of multitudes.

Fortunately there is whimsical relief, in the depiction of Methuselah, Noah's grandfather and the oldest man who ever lived. He makes 969 look like the new 90. Many Bible believers will take issue with the director's liberties, but the movie is also based on thousands of years of commentary and modern scholarship. An inventive mind will visualize, not sentimentalize. The movie's sci-fi giants, huge stone-like creatures with six arms to assist in building the ark and repelling intruders, will find intellectual defenders because the characters are rooted in the Bible's Nephilim. (You can Google them.)

I expected "Noah" to offer a blockbuster without much depth. But curious minds will want to think more about its themes of mercy and justice, its dialectic of good and evil, where personal desires collide with collective survival. "Noah" opened with a $44 million take for an audience with a range of ages and various religious beliefs and secular attitudes. Movieguide says that 83 percent of the movies made now include Biblical or moral content. Who knew? More than stormy weather sells.