In the month since Paramount Pictures released Noah, countless newspapers and websites have published essays explaining (and often debating) its fidelity to traditional Jewish texts. It’s common knowledge now that Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel based their screenplay not only on the story of Noah and the Flood as it appears in the Torah, but on the many tales and scholarly interpretations it has inspired throughout Jewish history (they also consulted with rabbis and scholars from multiple Judaic denominations). Collectively these exegeses, created by Jewish sages to explain ambiguous passages in the Torah, are referred to as midrash, originally a Hebrew word meaning “to seek out.” Written over thousands of years, midrashic texts have filled dozens of books, which makes this body of literature many times larger than the Torah itself. And you thought Peter Jackson had his hands full with Lord of the Rings.
Many details in Noah that seem like straight-up Hollywood storytelling were taken directly from midrash or apocryphal texts; for instance, the fallen angels with bodies of stone come from the Book of Enoch, written sometime between the first and fourth centuries BC. Tubal-Cain, the barbarian villain played by Ray Winstone, was drawn primarily from descriptions in the Midrash Tanhuma-Yelammedenu, which scholars believe was written around the fifth century AD. The list goes on and on, with new articles appearing online every day; in fact the trove of writing about Noah often reads like Jewish scholarship itself, dense with references, cross-references, arguments, and counterarguments. (Peter T. Chattaway has done a remarkable job of charting the various responses at the website Patheos.com.) In light of this phenomenon, it doesn’t sound hyperbolic for Aronofsky to describe the movie as a modern-day midrash—or for film critic J. Hoberman, writing at the Jewish culture site Tablet, to proclaim Noah “the most Jewish biblical blockbuster ever made.”
Regardless of how Aronofsky and Handel interpret these texts, they’ve certainly done their homework; Noah represents a serious engagement with its source material and with Jewish narrative tradition in general. As scholar Jacob Neusner has noted, the Jewish sages didn’t rewrite scripture so much as they “wrote with scripture,” developing their stories around interpretations of specific lines from the Torah. From this springs a fascinating contradiction of Jewish scholarship: scripture is at once inviolable and open to endless elaboration. As in midrashic texts, much of the narrative invention in Noah derives from older works, and the deliberate ambiguity of certain story elements forces viewers to wrestle with their implications.
The film’s most provocative inventions may be those concerning the hero. Once the Flood has begun, Noah (Russell Crowe, in a canny performance that alternates between grandiosity and restraint) turns into a zealot; interpreting the Flood as a sign that all humanity must perish, he vows to kill his unborn grandchildren should they be female. Yet God’s will is never explicit. As Aronofsky explained recently on The Colbert Report, the Hebrew word used in the Torah to describe God’s appeal to Noah can refer to dreams as well as spoken communication, so he and Handel went with the former to keep the film open-ended.
By contrast, the movie’s stark portrayal of mankind seems rooted in a most literal interpretation of Genesis 6:5: “The Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time.” The verse is rather frightening in its original context because it’s virtually all the Torah says about humanity during Noah’s time. Statements like these can register as towering and opaque—and indeed, Aronofsky has said in interviews that he wanted to convey the “wonder and horror” he experienced as a child when he first heard the stories in Genesis. Noah captures those feelings most successfully in its early passages, in which the hero and his family roam a desolated terrain, avoiding civilization. These scenes were shot on the crags of Iceland, vast and forbidding landscapes that evoke not only apocalyptic dread but the daunting simplicity of Old Testament prose. “In the midrash tradition the text has purposeful lacunae,” Handel told the Huffington Post. “It has questions that are posed in very few words, so the closer we read the more questions arose from it.”
Noah is hardly the first movie based on this kind of close, scholarly reading. European art cinema has a long tradition of adaptations that deliberately preserve outmoded elements of age-old texts, by such great filmmakers as Carl Theodor Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc, adapted from the minutes of Joan’s actual trial), Eric Rohmer (Perceval, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon), Manoel de Oliveira (Doomed Love, The Letter), Pier Paolo Pasolini (The Gospel According to Matthew), and Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet (Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach). When these directors gave cinematic form to musty narrative conventions without commenting on them overtly, they effectively questioned not only their source material but the limits of what movies can present, making these devices seem positively avant-garde. When Pasolini refused to narrativize the discrete dramatic episodes of the New Testament in The Gospel According to Matthew (1964), the result played like something by Bertolt Brecht.
As a director, Aronofsky doesn’t achieve anything quite that radical, but then, any filmmaker working with a $130 million budget is bound to make some concessions to popular taste. One can sense the influence of Jackson’s Tolkein adaptations in the graceless, overblown special-effects set pieces and the chaotic battle sequence that precedes the sealing of the Ark. Playing Methuselah, who provides Noah and his kin with spiritual guidance, Anthony Hopkins is more suggestive of Yoda than any figure from the Old Testament. Other shortcomings seem more directly attributable to Aronofsky. Even his best movies (Pi, Black Swan) can be grim to the point of monotony, and Noah is no exception. Aronofsky elicits nuanced work from his lead actors while treating most of the other characters like ciphers, and he tends to present the characters’ dialogue in dull, repetitive, imprecisely framed close-ups. These complaints seem trivial, though, when one considers the unprecedented achievement of pulling off a midrashic blockbuster. Noah, with its purposeful ambiguities and allusions to dense scholarly texts, hints at untapped possibilities for mainstream cinema, demonstrating how rich and strange movies can be when they interact with older narrative traditions.