‘Noah’ and the beside-the-point religion question


The box office results of Russell Crowe’s “Noah” this weekend ushered in, as it inevitably would, report cards on how the movie fared with religious audiences. The run-up to the film’s release included plenty of conversation about whether director Darren Aronofsky sufficiently took into account more devotional readings of the text (and, more to the point, people who have devotional readings of the text). The post-release debate could, then, only continue that examination, asking to what extent the film’s $44 million in U.S. box office came from that constituency, and the feelings toward the movie from same.

In one sense these are fair questions. Aronofsky and Paramount Pictures put religion at the center of the debate, first by building a movie from the bones of a Genesis story and then by making religion part of the movie’s campaign. If you court the pope as part of your promotional efforts, you can’t exactly cry foul if religious leaders are weighing in.

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Still, the question of how much “Noah” deviates from the text — and more precisely, how much an audience thinks it deviates from the text -- seems rather irrelevant, and I’ll admit to being irked if not surprised by how much it’s been bandied about in recent weeks. The genius -- and, yes, sometimes vexing -- thing about the Old Testament is that is has spawned thousands of years of scholarship and interpretation, scholarship and interpretation that, needless to say, the scholars themselves don’t always agree on.

Yes, Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel took liberties with their story, basing it largely on the fanciful, lesson-oriented Midrash. But taking “liberties” when making a movie like this is inevitable, because most of what we know about the text in the first place comes from interpretation of one form or another, and depends in more ways than we sometimes care to admit on the orientation of those doing the interpreting. Much of what people treat as clearly literal — in his piece about a religious tide turning against the film, my colleague Glenn Whipp notes Christian teachings about neighbors banging down the door of the ark to let them in after the flood has begun, but there are plenty of bedrock Jewish teachings as well -- aren’t actually found anywhere in the text. They’re plausible if hardly ironclad inferences, made for a set of reasons of which pure textual understanding is only a part.

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Lest this sound like some kind of literary relativism in defense of the director, consider: The story of the ark-building and ensuing flood comprises about 60-odd sentences in the Bible. If you’re relying exclusively on that, you barely have enough for a short, let alone a two-hour movie. Anyone making an epic film from this material is going to be doing plenty of interpreting.

The question, then, isn’t whether this film is “faithful” in any absolutist sense as much as it is whether the interpretations Aronofsky has squares with an interpretation a given filmgoer has. That’s a legitimate but rather different question, and one that barely seems like it should matter even and especially to people of faith. Sure, media representations of what we care about are important, but then, is any of our faith so shaky that it’s threatened by what one person does or doesn’t believe about a text?

The criticism doesn’t stop at the literalism issue. In raising the questions about the film some also wonder if the Bible has a place in spectacle cinema. There’s an unspoken undercurrent in this conversation about whether secular liberal Hollywood should be touching this story. This isn’t a personality with street cred like Kirk Cameron making “Fireproof,” after all -- it’s a director who made “Black Swan” and a studio that produces “Transformers,” applying some of the visual language (if hardly the themes) of both.

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Of course, the idea of this combination isn’t exactly new or provocative. Mainstream Hollywood has leaned on the Bible going back to its earliest days. What’s mostly changed is the climate into which these movies are coming out. For better or worse (but probably for better) Cecil B. De Mille, though he did convene some religious groups, never had to worry about whether a megachurch pastor would sink his film with a dismissive tweet, and his film’s ultimate place in the canon was decided neither by religious authorities grading it on a biblical-truth scorecard -- nor, it should be said, by secular-minded critics who wondered whether it sufficiently stood apart from a biblical text.

The film’s fate was decided by the more intrinsic attributes of film -- drama, character, spectacle, emotional impact. This might seem self-evident, but you’d hardly know it if you hunkered down in some of the discussion of the last few weeks, a discussion it should be said Paramount tentatively engaged in as well.

I’m not naive. Calling a film “Noah” and playing off associations — and such charged ones at that -- can’t but raise guards and hackles. But in debating “Noah,” it seems like we’re looking too much at what one filmmaker is saying about a religious text than what such a preoccupation with that question is saying about us.


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