“First of all, she had a name, and she had a history.”
So begins “The Turning of Lot’s Wife,” a part of Christian poet Scott Cairns’s prose-poem cycle The Recovered Midrashim of Rabbi Sab. Cairns imagines—and invites us to imagine along with him—that Lot’s wife did not meet her ensalinated end because of any nostalgia for the evil of Sodom and Gomorrah. Perhaps instead she “saw that she could not turn her back on even one doomed child of the city, but must turn her back instead upon the saved.” Apocryphal and faintly irreverent? Yes, but that’s the midrashic tradition for you: speculating about lacunae in Scripture that have gone unconsidered, then using these speculations to challenge and enrich our too-comfortable faith. In “The Turning of Lot’s Wife,” Scott Cairns does this by making the impolite suggestion that true faithfulness is demonstrated by compassion for the unrighteous, not by flight from them. In Noah, director Darren Aronofsky participates in the midrashic tradition by insinuating that, while we may know Noah’s name, we may not have thought about his history as deeply as we think.
His goal is to situate us firmly in a world that has known the Fall but has not yet been given the Word—whether in speech, writing, or flesh.“Impolite” doesn’t begin to describe some of the creative liberties Aronofsky takes with Genesis 6-9. These range from the innocuous (Noah and his family are hardcore vegetarians) to the extreme (there’s a huge battle scene in which hordes of desperate people try to board the ark by force). By now, you have probably also heard about the Watchers—fallen angels who have become encrusted in stone and slag because of their defiance of God’s edicts. These formidable beings (derisively dubbed “rock monsters” by a handful of unimpressed Christian bloggers) assist in the ark’s construction, and when the time comes they helpfully stomp on a few marauding villains, too.
But—and this is an incredibly important but—there is a method to this madness. Aronofsky intends to transport his audience to a setting very far removed from the one that they first learned about in Sunday school. His goal is to situate us firmly in a world that has known the Fall but has not yet been given the Word—whether in speech, writing, or flesh. To borrow a turn of phrase from Tolkien, Aronofsky wants to take us to a place “where the stars are strange”: a primeval Creation where, for most people, the Creator’s grace was a distant memory but His judgment was a clear and present fact.
To this end, Aronofsky employs many of his accustomed stylistic flourishes to lend a thoroughly Old-Testament texture to his film. Jagged editing, surreal imagery (e.g., those unfairly maligned Watchers), and a stormy lead performance from a superbly brooding Russell Crowe all work together to construct a setting of sharp edges and dire consequences. Aronofsky and his co-writer Ari Handel do not invent the darkness but merely accentuate it; viewers would do well to remember that the book of Genesis depicts rapes, murders, and betrayals right alongside its descriptions of divine providence and human faith. This accentuated darkness has a purpose, too. Thanks to Aronofsky’s staging, the central dramatic tension between mercy and divine justice is not a conflict between two abstract concepts. Rather, it becomes a matter of literal life and death.
Unbelievers have been occasional vessels for God’s truth, wittingly or unwittingly, for a long time. There is no reason to assume that this is impossible today simply because they carry movie cameras.In this context, many of the film’s more perplexing choices make sense. Aronofsky is careful to clarify why God is justified in wiping out humanity and why Noah is content to let it happen. The silhouette of Cain bludgeoning Abel to death with a rock is a recurring image throughout, and Noah’s harrowing sojourn in the camp of the despotic Tubal-cain reveals just how wicked people have become. This latter episode also convinces Noah, in an epiphany that is practically Calvinist, that depravity is inside every human being, including himself. If the Creator’s justice is to be truly absolute, Noah reasons, then all people must perish. Even him. Even his baby granddaughters. (On this, more in a moment.)
There’s a fearsome, Old Testament-style logic underlying Noah’s determination, especially since the audience knows that he is part of a faith tradition that includes the story of Abraham and Isaac. Yet we instinctively recoil from such implacable judgment, as do Aronofsky’s characters. “Have you no mercy?” is a plea echoed repeatedly in the dialogue. The implication is that justice untempered by mercy is too harsh for human beings to bear, and it is here that the film reveals itself as a serious-minded exploration of what it means to be sinful beings ruled by a righteous Creator.
Noah cannot bear to commit infanticide in the name of what he mistakenly thinks to be divine justice. At the moment of decision (filmed by Aronofsky in what is, for my money, the most remarkable shot of the year so far), the old patriarch is overcome by his love for his helpless grandchildren. Mercy is almost a reflex. And Aronofsky hints that this was not any garden-variety mercy, either; as Noah’s daughter-in-law tells him later, “The Creator put the choice in your hands, and you chose mercy.” A fallen human being acts as an imperfect vessel for God’s perfect will, a conduit for grace.
This is a film that was made by Hollywood in 2014.
It’s likely that some of these thematic undercurrents were not included intentionally by the filmmakers, of course. They don’t need to be. It may be strange and uncomfortable for Christians that Darren Aronofsky, an atheist, should be the one to show these things to us, but we should not be surprised. Read the stories of Balaam, of Nebuchadnezzar, of the centurion at the Crucifixion. Unbelievers have been occasional vessels for God’s truth, wittingly or unwittingly, for a long time. There is no reason to assume that this is impossible today simply because they carry movie cameras.
Noah is not without flaws. The big battle scene is grafted unevenly onto the rest of the film, and one wishes that Aronofsky’s portrayal of “the Creator” evoked more than just a silent presence in the heavens. But it would be churlish to complain when the rest of the film is so fascinating, provocative, and insightful. Consider the climax: that terrible breathless instant before wrath is turned aside by love. In the tradition of midrash, Noah is apocryphal and extrabiblical—but you knew that already. What don’t you already know?