Think ‘Noah’ is confusing? Try to make sense of the critics
April 30th, 2014
By Kurt Jensen
NEW YORK – Time was when hidden messages and obscure references within a big-budget Hollywood film about a religious figure could be treated as lighthearted insider jokes.
Take, for example, the beloved 1945 classic “The Bells of St. Mary’s” which follows Father Chuck O’Malley’s (Bing Crosby) interaction with a parochial school led by Sister Mary Benedict (Ingrid Bergman).
The script makes mention of the thoroughly modern “St. Victor’s School.” That was a nod to Msgr. John Devlin, at that time the Hollywood representative of the National Legion of Decency, which kept its eye on Hollywood films; he was also the pastor of St. Victor Parish in West Hollywood.
Similarly, a secondary character, grumpy businessman Mr. Bogardus (Henry Travers), complains that the architects of his new office building are “a couple of thieves, Butler and Dean.” That’s a dual allusion to director David Butler – who had recently helmed Crosby’s “The Road to Morocco” with Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour – and gagman Barney Dean, who contributed material to that and other Crosby pictures.
A “Road” movie gag in a reverent Catholic story? Few were in the know, and no one was much flustered.
Contrast that with the controversy that has swirled around director Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” beginning well before the movie’s release.
Aronofsky is an easy target for those on the lookout for anti-Christian messages in his work. Raised as a Jew, he now self-identifies as an atheist, and has often discussed his appreciation of Kabbalah, a mystical offshoot of Judaism.
Yet, since the story of Noah’s covenant with God takes up fewer than 100 verses in the Book of Genesis, and contains almost no dialogue, filmmakers seeking to recount it in a feature-length movie have inevitably had to pad the tale. To do so, they’ve had to rely either on those parts of Scripture that do not concern the Ark builder himself or on non-biblical writings or on their own imaginations.
Aronofsky has chosen to draw from all three of these sources. The result has been a potentially confusing experience for those filmgoers who are less than fully conversant with the literature to which he turned, whether within the canon of the Bible or outside it. Even among presumably well-informed critics, moreover, interpretations of Aronofsky’s viewpoint and intent have varied widely.
Theologian Brian Mattson, who works at the Center for Cultural Leadership in Mount Hermon, Calif., was among the first to weigh in. On March 31, he posted a lengthy analysis of “Noah” on his website in which he called the film “a thoroughly pagan retelling of the Noah story direct from Kabbalist and gnostic sources.” He went on to identify Kabbalah as a form of Jewish gnosticism.
Among the primary tenets of gnosticism – a philosophy which, in ancient times, gained adherents among pagans, Jews and Christians alike – is the idea that salvation comes through secret knowledge rather than, in the Christian context, through the redeeming power of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Gnosticism also holds that an evil deity called the Demiurge created the material world.
Focusing on the latter point, Peter T. Chattaway, a longtime film critic for Christian publications, has taken issue with Mattson’s critique.
Writing on the Patheos blog, he observes, “Instead of condemning the created world as an illusion imposed on us by an evil creator, Aronofsky’s film celebrates the created world and, through its protagonist, suggests that the animals are ‘innocent’ in a way that humans are not. ... gnosticism hates creation. Aronofsky’s ‘Noah’ loves creation. So whatever else you might say about Aronofsky’s film, it is not gnostic.”
On April 10, the volume ramped up again when Mimmo Muolo, an author who contributes to the Italian Catholic newspaper Avvenire, wrote a critical column.
Muolo is not the publication’s regular film reviewer. But because Avvenire is owned by the Italian bishops’ conference – and, as The Hollywood Reporter, a trade journal, concluded, “is aligned with the Vatican” – his comments were portrayed as a form of official rebuke. If so, it was an especially stinging one since both Aronofsky and Russell Crowe, who plays the title character, had aggressively sought a Vatican endorsement of “Noah.”
Muolo accused Aronofsky and screenwriter Ari Handel of being “so anxious to give the biblical event an ecological and vaguely New-Age tone that they turn it into a lost opportunity.” He concluded, “If the film does not meet expectations it is because it uses Noah only to sound a loud ecological alarm.” In short, like Mattson, he thought “Noah” other than biblical.
Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.
From May 2, 2014 issue of Catholic San Francisco.