Sunday, April 20, 2014

Prophet Can't Catch A Break

It's a tough life in the Old Testament.  Anyone who knows the Sunday School stories has already encountered more than a dozen morally ambiguous, complex stories about God's relationship with man, from a questionably foreplanned Fall from Grace in a garden, to the first child killing his brother in a jealous rage, to a tragic fall with a righteous king watching a woman bathing...

It just gets worse.  The Bible is difficult literature for anybody, spic-and-spanned as it may be by parents attempting to teach their children moral lessons that let them be strong in a complex world.  Noble as this often is, seeing the story in some of its darker, more original light can be useful. "Noah" as told by Darren Aronofsky, is a challenging tale because it does not affirm faith, it tests faith, and the result is a stressful, gasping film that explores the dark side of devoted monotheism.

From the beginning, it is clear that this Prophet is not the one we imagined.  The earth of Aronofsky's Pre-Deluge imagination has been industrialized into black soot and tree stumps, and Noah and his family live off of lichens and herbs.  Black-clad barbarians roam the land, killing animals and men at will; it is Noah's particular virtue that he refuses to kill or eat animals.

The environmental message is a perfectly reasonable interpretation of the story, but strikes a strange chord.  In the first two minutes we have seen him as an adult, he chides his boy for picking a flower and seconds later has killed three men who were hunting an animal.  I don't think even the vegans in the audience would cheer at such a display.  The journey that Noah goes through takes him even deeper into hatred of humankind, but I think seeing tenderness from the man would make us feel more for the awful crucible he goes through.

The rest comes as we're familiar with it.  While staying in the wilderness, Noah has a dream.  He sees rain falling from the sky and making plants out of nothing.  He finds himself in water, surrounded by floating, dying bodies.  The imagery in these dreams is gorgeous--in ways, it is the most fascinating portrayal of divine communication we've seen in film for a long time.  God does not say words, but Noah understands, and his wife (played by Jennifer Connelly) is willing to believe.

The film balances between Biblical accuracy and Kabbalistic reinterpretations, and while audiences will be thrown off by the arachnoid rock-angels, everything else in this story is a part of the world created for it.  I felt drawn into the world, separated from the incredible evil of humanity, where women are traded for meat and Russell Crowe looks down to find blood in the soil between his toes.  It is disturbing, terrifying, and stressful.  One particular image, where the family sits in the ark listening to the screams of a thousand people trying to hold onto an outcropping of rock, is reminiscent of a Gustav Dore illustration of Dante's inferno.

For a devoted Mormon, Noah brought up a question I didn't expect to find here: "Is it worth it?"

Is it worth to try and follow this God?  He demands everything--for Noah and his family, they lived on almost nothing.  A life of depriving oneself of what is normal for everyone else--for Aronofsky, a life without meat and industrialism, and for Mormons it might be those things as well as pre-marital sex, booze, coffee(?!), and more.  Sometimes it is easy to live without these things, and sometimes one can really feel as abandoned and friendless as Noah and his family did.

'Noah' only very rarely gives us glimpses of hope--a miracle is followed by a passionate kiss between Ila (Emma Watson) and Shem.  Noah joining his wife to garden in the post-deluge world and their glances tell of the birth of something more than just new plants.  And the famous covenant symbol of God's--the rainbow--make a startling appearance.  Still, these things come at a cost, and many character bemoan not being able to hear or understand the voice of God.

Eventually, though, in my experience, we will.  Personally.  Individually.  Truthfully.  And Noah points out where these things can come from--from God, mostly, whether it be through a servant (Methuselah), through a child, through a new world.  It's easy to choose the short-term things to make us happy, as the wicked did in Noah's time, but in 'Noah', Aronofsky points out to us how much a prophet or even a person really has to do to earn it.

Hopefully, unlike Noah for most of the movie, we won't forget that happiness is a part of it all.

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