Making Space For All on Aronofsky’s Ark

Darren Aronofsky likes to call his new movie Noah, which opened yesterday, “the least Biblical movie ever made.” I can see why he would want to avoid the label, and the outrage of the Bible-believing contingent of evangelical Christianity that goes with it, which I predicted here.

Boycotts were threatened, concessions were made, Christian marketing efforts renewed. Several Muslim-majority nations announced bans of the film. Russell Crowe, who plays Noah, made a much-publicized attempt to get the Pope’s approval. Even the New Atheists got in on the action; whining in The New Yorker that the very existence of so many movies based on Bible stories indicates that Hollywood is actually fighting a war against atheism.

But I also want to call upon Aronofsky to reconsider. The word “biblical”, according to Webster’s, just means “relating to, taken from, or found in the Bible.” Let’s take that word back. What all of these factions opposing the movie had in common (except, perhaps for Russell Crowe) was the assumption that there is one appropriate way to treat the Bible cinematically—with reverence, ridicule, or not at all, depending on your persuasion. But there’s a lot more than that to be “found in the Bible.”

Aronofsky insisted on this artistic freedom all along. The stubbornness his characters often display against elemental odds served the director well in his determination to create room in between these factions for a directorial vision. The only concession to religiou he made was a charming little “midrash” over at the Huffington Post, in which he and co-writer Ari Handel repeatedly refer to themselves as “we Jews.” Indeed, a midrashic approach, in which texts and commentaries are layered so deeply together it’s hard to tell where one ends and another begins, might be the most appropriate way to think about movies based on the Old Testament, which is, after all, Jewish. (A koan: what does a Jewish movie look like? The answer: whatever it wants to.)

Besides, the stories of Genesis that take place before the emergence of Israel are wild, prehistorical creatures that have always thwarted theological control, as I have written about the Garden of Eden, which continues to resist being found, despite the four lines of Genesis that appear to be a straightforward geographic description. That’s what makes these tales such great creative vessels: they can carry any number of interpretations.

So after all this hubbub I was eager to see for myself just exactly what Aronofsky’s Ark did contain. The answers were just as fantastical as I had hoped: a terrifying burnt-out post-paradise landscape, a feverish retelling of the necessary prehistory that gets boiled down to just three shots: snake; apple; fist of Cain. An invisible God, never named as such but always called “The Creator” or “him”, a jolly if terrifying Methuselah, has in his possession magical seeds from Eden that grow an entire forest for Noah to chop down and build the Ark. Giant benevolent fallen angels trying to redeem themselves after being turned into stone for failing to protect Adam and Eve. It’s even got intelligent female characters, conjured from nearly nothing in the text, and a believable backstory for Ham, the cursed son.

All of these directorial choices required thoughtful religious research, but were deployed without the tone-deafness of Biblical propaganda. (With the exception of villain Tubal-Cain, representative of all that God found worthy of drowning, who says things like “It is man who decides when he will live and when he will die.” But you gotta have one, right?) If Aronofsky’s movie tests the proposition that there is room in American pop culture for a movie that is biblical without being religious, I say he succeeds. But of course it’s this weekend’s box-office numbers that will have the last word.