Epic films based on the Hebrew Bible have never quite gone away, but this once-popular genre has become very sporadic. Aside from “Prince of Egypt” in 1998 and “One Night with the King” in 2006, it has mostly moved to television.
Now it is back in a big way with the release of “Noah,” conceived and directed by Darren Aronofsky. In its first weekend in theaters, it topped the box office.
I concentrated on midrash in seminary, and I watch biblical films wanting to know how the creative team handles the midrashic task, how it answers questions that the biblical text doesn’t. So I was taking notes during the whole movie.
Here is the spoiler alert: Much of what you’re about to read will reveal some surprises in the film. I will comment on the solutions Aronofsky and his co-writer, Ari Handel, found to textual problems and whether they fit in with the tradition of Jewish commentary.
So if you want to avoid the spoilers, at least read this: I recommend this movie, which is both entertaining and thought-provoking. The script is somewhat uneven, if not occasionally silly, but the emotions are elemental and the acting is strong and believable. Computer-generated imagery is used amply and very effectively throughout, conveying both the wonder and the horror of this universal story.
Here are some of the questions unanswered in the Book of Genesis, and solutions proposed by Aronofsky and Handel:
The Nefilim are mentioned in Genesis 6:4; what were they? The Hebrew word could point to “falling,” and the movie shows them as six-armed stone giants, glowing from within. They were angels on earth who became arrogant and were punished by God with stone bodies. On screen they resemble the Transformers of 2007, but I think that the stone monster of “Galaxy Quest” was there first.
Aronofsky and Handel have them helping Noah and his family build the ark, answering the question of how these few people could have accomplished such a feat by themselves. The Nefilim also defend the ark from a marauding army.
How did Noah experience God’s call to him to build an ark to rescue the animals and his own family? The movie suggests miracles, dream visions and a cup of herbal “tea.” God does not actually speak. These alternate means of communication are not only more believable for most viewers, but they also allow more room for Noah’s disastrous misinterpretation of their meaning later in the movie.
How did the animals endure the voyage? They slept through the whole thing. As the animals arrive and find places in the ark, Noah and his family spread smoky waves of incense over them. This avoids the problems of feeding them, cleaning up after them and preventing predation. We don’t get to see how they are awakened. I predict that a director’s cut will be issued in which this and other narrative gaps will be filled.
Why, in the aftermath of the flood, does Noah become a drunkard? In the biblical text, no motivation is suggested. If anything, it reveals a paradoxical weakness in this “righteous, blameless” man.
Here we find the climax of one of the core themes of the film. Not only does “Noah” portray overwhelming sin and global catastrophe; it is also a searing psychological portrait of the man himself. He explains that he separated himself from his family because he failed them and God and turned to alcohol in his despair. Shem’s wife comforts Noah by saying that he chose mercy and love over strict justice, thus leading him to seek reconciliation with his wife and children.
Does the story of Noah and the flood bring a unique message for our time? No surprises here; these biblical chapters have long been a source of inspiration for those concerned with climate change, ecology and biodiversity. Early in the film, Noah says, “We only collect what we can use and what we need.” Later he says, “Be gentle and protective, lest we lose a piece of creation forever.”
Since his first feature film in 1998, the enigmatic and queasily terrifying “Pi,” (note: I admire this movie) Aronofsky has established some trademarks. For example, he gravitates toward obsessive characters whose grip on reality is faltering. In “Noah,” the title character is so focused on what he thinks God wants that he is oblivious to the blessings of love, family and life itself.
Another Aronofsky signature is “hip-hop montage,” in which extremely short shots are edited together to produce the illusion of motion and change. In “Noah,” this effect is used many times, notably in a sequence depicting the evolution of animal life and another demonstrating the continuity of warfare in human history.
Top honors go to Aronofsky’s production team leaders, most of whom have been with him for years. Editor Andrew Weisblum deserves special praise.
Committed and convincing acting comes from Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman and the always-satisfying Ray Winstone. Anthony Hopkins is a little campy, but he certainly enjoyed himself. Only Douglas Booth, as Shem, doesn’t seem quite up to the task.
Does “Noah” belong in the Jewish tradition of biblical commentary? Yes, absolutely. If you’re not well-acquainted with the literature, you might be surprised at how fanciful – and occasionally downright loopy – midrash can be. There is no sacrilege here, only an earnest attempt to make sense of a very difficult text.
Aronofsky has done us a favor by reminding us that the story of Noah and the flood is not a colorful children’s fable. It is a horrifying story of the devastating consequences of evil and violence. It is also a sobering tale of the crushing burden of standing virtually alone against all humanity while trying to understand and carry out the will of God.
So are we in a new era of epic biblical films? “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is coming in December. Watch this space.
(Rabbi Paul Tuchman is spiritual leader of Temple B’nai Israel in White Oak, a suburb of Pittsburgh)