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Friday, April 4, 2014

Noah

Kicking off this week's movies with a biggie, we have what is easily my most Jewish movie review ever!

This review is also up at Channel 24.


 What it's about

A retelling of the Biblical story of Noah, the man chosen by God to save himself, his own family and two of each kinds of animal from a flood that is to submerge the entire world and wipe out the rest of humanity.

What we thought

Even as far as “religious” films go, Darren Aronofsky's cinematic adaptation of the story of Noah has drawn a quite staggering amount of controversy – most especially by the more conservative Christians and Muslims out there who abhor Aronofsky's very obvious refusal to adhere to a literal understanding of the story as it is presented in the Bible. Generally, this sort of controversy says little about the quality of the film in question, but that's actually not the case this time.

In my years writing for this site, I don't believe I have ever reviewed a film through the viewpoint of my being (if, ya know, you really want to label it) a practising, Modern Orthodox Jew but there is no way in hell that I can adequately and fairly write about this film without bringing my own personal beliefs and cultural identity into it. Apologies if you have a problem with that, but I promise, there will be no preaching involved.

For a start, when I saw the first trailer for the film, I was not exactly what you would call excited to see the finished product. This had significantly less to do with being somehow offended by it and pretty much everything to do with with it looking like another crappy Hollywood take on a biblical story. By nature, such things tend to be high on the preachiness and low on the intelligence – and obviously, things like nuance and quality of filmmaking don't even come into it. Noah looked expensive, with high production values but even with its disaster movie aesthetic, I was fully expecting another terrible load of quasi-religious hogwash.

And yet, and yet: the only thing that gave me hope was that Noah was directed and co-written by Darren Aronofsky who, even at his very worst, is an interesting filmmaker with something to say. The trailer made it look pretty worthless but with Aronofsky at the helm, there was always the possibility that the film may just be a whole lot better than the trailer implied.


And it is. It really, really is. To be clear though: it's not a perfect film by any means as it sometimes struggles to keep up with its ambitions and the paucity of plot in the original text means that it does sometimes feel a bit light in terms of story. What it is though, is a daring, confrontational and ultimately powerful piece of cinema that also happens to be, by quite some distance, the most Jewish Bible-oriented film I've ever seen.

See, unlike our fellow Abrahamic faiths, Judaism does not place that much importance on the surface text on the Bible but is based far more on the extensive oral tradition that is extrapolated from it. Put another way, it's not so much the stories themselves that matter as much as the things that they teach us. This possibly explains, incidentally, why Jewish reaction to the film has so far been much less critical than that of our Christian and Muslim counterparts.

This is important because quite aside from the fact that Aronofsky clearly drew heavily from midrash – effectively, the part of this Jewish oral tradition that deals specifically with explaining and expounding on the Biblical text – for much of the detail of the film (as for example: Noah's vegetarianism and his complex, often flawed character), he very much embraces the idea that what's really important about this particularly primal story is what it has to say about us, about the world and about our relationship with, well, pretty much everything.

Aronofsky wisely treats the actual text as mythology and sets his film in a world that could just as easily be Middle Earth or Mount Olympus, which gracefully sidesteps any distracting questions of the true lineage of mankind or the historical accuracy of the story. Instead the focus is set purely on what it all means.

Aronfksy's Noah ( quite brilliantly portrayed by Russell Crowe, in rare form) is a man racked by guilt and by doubt by the awful tasks with which he is tasked, and even as he is weighed down by his responsibilities, he is left to ponder The Creator's (presumably for the sake of universalism, the word “God” is never used) will, as well as the very nature of humankind itself. What results is essentially a meditation on, among other things: religious extremism; nihilistic barbarism; divine inspiration; duty; the nature of good and evil; man's responsibilities to his planet; mercy and, ultimately, mankind's relationship with that which we cannot understand.

Sure, there's plenty of action, spectacular visuals and old fashioned bombast, as well as a fair amount of overwrought dialogue, elliptical storytelling and the odd, weird storytelling choice, but what makes Aranofsky's Noah – and steeped in tradition as it may be, it's still very much Aronofsky's Noah – the intriguing, frustrating and boldly chutzpadic film that it is, has everything to do with its ideas.

You may love it, you may hate it, but Noah will engage you. And, really, what more could you want from a trip to the cinema?


2 comments:

  1. I definitely didn't enjoy this film as much as you did. I found many scenes to be confusing and the rest under developed.
    ***
    Spoilers of the film ahead
    ***
    For instance, I would have loved to know what the cities were like. And why after so many years of working on building the ark, Ham chose literally the last two hours to confront his father about why he hasn't found him a wife.
    To me the movie seems to have three time zones.
    1) Noah's early life before the vision.
    2) Building the ark.
    3) Main part of the movie - the hour before entering the ark they suddenly have a thousand things that they haven't done yet.
    4) Noah goes psycho on the ark.
    5) Life after the ark. Noah becomes normal.
    I think that the movie would have flowed much more smoothly if (3) happened slowly during (2).

    Anyway, those are just my complaints, but as usual, I loved reading your opinion the movie.

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  2. Thanks, David! Really appreciate the comments.

    Actually, those are really valid points. Like I said, I really liked the movie but it is flawed to pieces - which is weirdly part of why I liked it.

    Though, I don't know, maybe they're just massive procrastinators!

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