The Lessons of Noah
Darren Aronofsky dared to make his Noah care about the animals placed in his charge.



Before they presume to set Aronofsky straight on the Judaeo-Christian way, his detractors could stand to learn more about it themselves. Their scoffing has the ring of injured vanity. Not enough “human exceptionalism” cowbell in the movie to drown out actual reflection on the pertinent moral themes its director has chosen to stress. If a chorus of indignant and self-satisfied derision is any measure of such a film’s artistic success, Noah seems to have hit the mark.

Doubtless the more brutal dramas from the Bible make easier movie viewing when we can comfortably identify with the heroic figures, or at least with the innocent bystanders. Aronofsky could have flattered us along these lines, with a nice, tame tale leaving everyone to feel how special we are, how endlessly wonderful and entitled. Instead of offering up soothing spiritual bromides, however, he has evidently shown his audience respect, appealing to our conscience instead of just our self-regard. By inviting viewers to look beyond themselves, to recall the goodness and beauty of other beings and to question old cruelties of every kind, the movie has done us a service.

In this age of the merciless factory farms, inflicting boundless misery on unnumbered animals, with no regard for their dignity as living creatures, does a film director who challenges us to think about meat and its moral cost really have to explain himself? If it’s vegan propaganda that needs watching, moreover, we can start with Genesis 1:29, clear in its implication that flesh-eating is a mark of the fall and corruption of the world. When we read later on, after the deluge, that “the fear and dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth,” does that have the ring of divine approval? Are we really to take it, as many people do in practice, as some exhortation from the Almighty to go forth and be the earth’s bullies, exploiting, destroying, and devouring as we please?

The drama of the flood and the Second Covenant is an epic of renewal, of divine concession to mankind’s incorrigible weakness and taste for violence, unfolding even as the animals are bestowed another blessing, and as the dove debuts as a symbol of peace. A more peaceful way is the whole point, which may explain why not even the most pedantic of Noah’s critics draws attention to the prophetic visions of the Old Testament, with their ideal of broken bows and reconciliation among all creatures, no violence or bloodshed but only loving kindness. A wildly impractical idea, sure; just like beating swords into plowshares, loving both our neighbor and our enemy, or, when a man asks for your coat, giving him your cloak, too.

If the Bible is your guide in these matters (and reason only points in the same direction), nothing in all its wisdom prevents anyone from witnessing for that merciful alternative in the here and now. And however blurred by the doctrines of man, there’s a good deal in Scripture to encourage the effort. Nowhere does the Lord say, “Kill this in remembrance of me.” There is no mandate to eat meat, and if there are no justifications of survival or health, either, then it’s worth asking what’s left. All sorts of fasting practices, dietary and slaughter rules, and prayers before meals still acknowledge the stain of violence. But instead of trying to sanctify the harm done, how about not harming at all? Why just say grace when we can show it?

The rankest propaganda is the kind we feed ourselves, rationalizing so many harsh things done at the expense of innocent creatures, or else finding new excuses for habits and customs we could long ago have left behind. Noah, whatever its other merits as a work of art, seems to have cast off all those excuses, steering instead toward something closer to the ideal, and there is no insult in that. Take it as a timely reminder that every one of us is free to do the same.

— Matthew Scully, a former special assistant and senior speechwriter to President George W. Bush, is the author of Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy.

After many months of rumors, reports of re-cuts, and a rising tide of anticipation (and some trepidation) among faith-based audiences, the feature film Noah debuts in theaters on March 28, with Russell Crowe starring as the famous biblical shipbuilder. Here’s a look.
Noah arrives in theaters amid renewed interest in religious films, following less than a month after Son of God and with Exodus, starring Christian Bale as Moses, opening later this year. Whether it connects with faith-based audiences depends on how far it strays from the biblical story and how director Darren Aronofsky navigates his adaptation.
The film also stars Jennifer Connell as Noah’s wife, Naameh.
Among the other notable cast members are Ray Winstone, who plays Tubal-cain, a rival of Noah who attempts to seize control of the ark. (Tubal-cain is mentioned in the Old Testament, and is a descendant of Cain.)
Emma Watson (from the Harry Potter films) plays Ila, the wife of Noah’s son Shem.
Anthony Hopkins appears as Noah’s grandfather Methusaleh.
ARTISTIC LICENSE: Darren Aronofsky is a favorite of film critics whose work includes Black Swan and the metaphysically-themed The Fountain. Noah is by far his largest film to date. He has said in interviews that he has wanted to make a film about Noah since he was a teenager.
When an early version of the script was leaked online in October 2012, commenters complained it portrayed Noah as an “environmental wacko,” feeding concerns over the film’s viewpoint.
Aronofsky, who is an avowed atheist, added to concerns when he called the film “the least biblical biblical film ever made” and described Noah as the “first environmentalist.” (Pictured, Aronofsky and Crowe on the set.)
Aronofsky later leavened his words, telling the Los Angeles Times: “We completely wanted to respect the text, and build a story out of what the text was saying.”
Aronofsky explained his approach further in an interview with National Catholic Register: “Noah and his family are [heirs] of the original sin, just like Cain and his line. But to make everything black and white would be flimsy entertainment that doesn’t capture anything about real people. … It makes it a myth, not something that’s real. And we wanted to try to understand this as something that really happened.”
Test screenings of the $150 million, special-effects laden film held last fall for religious audiences — a key demographic for the film — produced what The Hollywood Reporter called “troubling reactions,” leading to reports of re-cuts and tensions between Aronofsky and the studio over the film’s final version.
Paramount, the studio behind the film, has reached out to faith-based organizations such as the American Bible Society, and has also agreed to add a disclaimer to the film’s marketing materials to try and soften criticism that it strays too far from its biblical roots.
The disclaimer reads: “The film is inspired by the story of Noah. While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values, and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis.”
Crowe strongly defends the film, telling Good Morning America: “People are seeing the movie and they’re realizing how respectful it is and how potent it is.” He said criticism from those who had not seen the film was “bordering on absolute stupidity.”
Crowe made a personal appeal to Pope Francis to see the film for himself, tweeting: “Dear Holy Father @Pontifex, would you like to see @DarrenAronofsky film #NOAH? I am sure you would find it fascinating.” Crowe travelled to the Vatican to try and get an audience with Francis, but was politely turned away. (He stayed to watch the general audience.)
Should Christian moviegoers give Noah a chance? National Religious Broadcasters president Jerry Johnson says the film can inspire “healthy gospel discussions about some of the positives, and even the negatives” of Aronofsky’s approach, but stopped short of saying churches should buy up tickets for their congregations.
Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, tells USA Today: “This is not Noah 101 from the book of Genesis. But it's a pro-faith movie, a pro-God movie, a pro-family movie. Without a doubt."
SUMMARY JUDGMENT: Here’s a look at what some reviews are saying about Noah.
Steven Greydanus, National Catholic Register: “[Noah is] a work of art and imagination that makes this most familiar of tales strange and new: at times illuminating the text, at times stretching it to the breaking point, at times inviting cross-examination and critique.”
Kathleen Parker, Washington Post: “Noah is  a movie. It is not a sermon or a call to prayer. … It does not presume to encourage religious conversion, disrespect a prophet or evangelize a snake, though it does glorify virtue in the highest.”
Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter: “To be sure, this is not the genial, grandfatherly Noah charmingly evoked by John Huston … Crowe's Noah is a fighter, a survivalist and yet a tortured man dismayed by the ruin brought upon the land by the others of his species.”
Scott Foundas, Variety: “The world’s most famous shipwright becomes neither the Marvel-sized savior suggested by the posters nor the “environmentalist wacko” prophesied by some test-screening Cassandras, but rather a humble servant driven to the edge of madness in his effort to do the Lord’s bidding.”
Ty Burr, Boston Globe: “Noah is equal parts ridiculous and magnificent, a showman’s folly and a madman’s epic…. Crowe shoulders his character’s burden with an intensity that becomes more moving as it darkens: Noah’s a kind man driven to cruelty by the Voice that only he hears. Is he crazy? Is he being tested? Has he been abandoned?”
Glenn Beck, “If you are looking for a biblical movie, this is definitely not it … It’s not the story of Noah that I was hoping for. If you are going for that, you will be horribly disappointed.” Beck also warns: “It treats a prophet of God like a lunatic … there’s no redeeming value in Noah, none.”
Updated: Mar. 27, 2014