In the old days, biblical epics were produced as much to have an excuse for prurient excess as for the moral lesson to be imparted by the retelling of a familiar tale of good and evil. Darren Aronofsky’s NOAH is about as far from that trope as it is possible to get and still be a movie. In Aronofksy’s retelling of the story of the flood, he has chosen instead to focus on the theology of the tale, but not the exoteric version. Radical in its scope in many senses of that word, it is the esoteric that catches Aronofsky’s fancy, and to which he is true, even if the details of the story may not seem that way to the masses.
Make no mistake, this is a film concerned with the mystical underpinnings of the story, from the first frames, in which Noah’s father, Lamech (Martin Tsokis), winds a snakeskin around his left arm phylactery-style while preparing to give Noah his blessing. The implication is that the skin is from the snake that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden, where the forbidden fruit beats like a heart as it dangles temptingly from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The story of the Fall gets a similar mystical gloss, as well as being tied to all too contemporary issues as the descendants of Cain ravage the Earth for its resources, while Noah (Russell Crowe) and his family, the last descendants of Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve, live in vegetarian harmony with the world. They also live in isolation in a desolate landscape of dead landscapes and poisoned lakes. The evil that makes The Creator want to destroy Humankind is not just the violence the sons of Cain visit upon one another.
Noah receives his vision of what is coming via dreams, the which he must have interpreted by his great-grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), a mountain hermit with a puckish personality and an unflappable outlook brought about by his legendarily long life. After consultation, and a gift from the original Garden, Noah sets about building his Ark, staving off the attempts by the descendants of Cain, led by the viciously amoral Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone) who is hell bent to thwart The Creator’s plan.
Aronofsky, who directed Natalie Portman to an Oscar in BLACK SWAN, and redefined the meaning of a happy ending with not just that film, but also his work in REQUIEM FOR A DREAM and his first film, the stunning PI, is not interested in the Sunday School version of the story. His is a Kabbalistic interpretation veiled, as the Kabbalah considers all Bible stories to be, in the outer covering of a straightforward story. The esoteric meaning, however, passed down in an oral tradition and supplemented by texts that reveal more, but not all, is evident for those with the eyes to see. The substance for which the descendants of Cain have ruined the world is called Zohar, which is Hebrew for splendor, and also the title of Kabbalah’s essential text. The fallen angels who watched over Cain after the Fall are stone spiders, pure light encased in a shell of mud that imprisons them on this plane, the soma and sema of classical philosophy made beautifully manifest. For those not familiar with the more esoteric parts of the story, there is, as with the Bible stories, a fully fleshed out story that is complete in and of itself, though re-interpreted through Aronofsky’s mystical prism.
This Noah does not receive marching order from The Creator in specific terms, and this brings up a wonderful subtext of what Humankind is up against when interpreting Divine Will. Tubal Cain, sure of his dominion over the Earth, and his right to exploit it, has no doubts about that Will. Noah, as he witnesses one atrocity after another perpetrated by Tubal is equally sure of what he has to do, and it’s not necessarily what weve been taught. Wrestling between Mercy and Justice, two of the Sephiroth on opposite pillars of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, becomes the struggle, and leads the story into unexpected places, and situations that can make you seriously question exactly how things will play out.
But this is not a sterile intellectual exercise, though it is blazingly and unapologetically intellectual. The struggle plays out in very human, very emotional terms, as Noah’s wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) can’t pluck all the pity out of her heart for what is about to happen to humanity, and son Ham (Logan Lerman), finds himself a little too interested in their warlike ways. Humanity’s ultimate worthiness comes under scrutiny with Noah’s other son, Shem (Douglas Booth) and his devotion to the beautiful but barren Ila (Emma Watson), who has her own problems of conscience about becoming Shem’s wife. A scene of Noah and his family listening to the screams of those left outside the Ark when the heavens and earth open is beautifully rendered as emblematic of how they each work out their acceptance of the Divine Will, and Noah’s subsequent retelling of the creation story, via a montage that marries science and theology, catapults the story from a shopworn tale of no relevance to one that is as immediate as the latest ecological catastrophe.
The special effects reflect the monumental scale of Aronofsky’s vision. Not just the cloud of birds flocking to the ark, but the way the flood commences in strictly biblical terms, with rain pouring down, and geysers of water pouring forth from the ground. None of this, however, overshadows Crowe’s performance, which is intense and powerfully quiet, making the inner turmoil all the more palpably visceral. He, like the film as a whole, is solemn, but never stolid.
Aronofksy’s bold reimagining of the NOAH story as an epic battle played out on many levels with the fate of humankind in the balance brings the dynamism of fresh perspective to a familiar tale. Brilliantly uncompromising in its metaphysical vision, NOAH takes its epic grandeur from its blazing intelligence, not just its spectacle. It is awash in signs and symbols, and for those who find them, they will enrich and amplify the story. For those who can’t, it is still a stark and majestic story of humankind’s place and responsibility in the cosmos.