100 Years of Movies

100 Years of Movies
One cinephile's chronological journey through a century of film...

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Noah and the Difference Between Deepening Faith and Reinforcing It

[Spoilers for Noah and The Last Temptation of Christ ahead.]

I'm a Catholic.  I went to 16 years of Catholic school.  I go to Mass every Sunday.  My kids go to a Catholic grade school.

But I have a confession to make...

I liked Noah. A lot. 

Why is this is this a confession? Because according to some, Noah is blasphemous and sinister and anti-Christian.

I am always mystified by these reactions from religious organizations and others.  If they really feel so strongly, they are stirring controversy (and publicity) for a film they are decrying. Of course, they are also holding themselves up as defenders of the faith and if that heroism gets more views, subscriptions or donations, so be it.

But I digress.  What I really want to talk about is the state of Christian filmmaking.  And frankly, it's not great.

Part of it goes back to the messaging above.  The Blind Side and Fireproof? Good. The Last Temptation of Christ? I'll just hold your reservation for this seat in hell right now.

The problem from my perspective is two fold:
  • Media supports a view that films that reinforce faith are good and films that challenge and potentially deepen it are at best dangerous and problematic.
  • Audiences are trained by these accounts to view movies based on what happens in them and not based on what they are about.
Christian films are generally safe, reflecting back the values that are already widely accepted.  When Fireproof's Caleb (Kirk Cameron) accepts God into his life, we know everything is going to be all right.  There's nothing to think about.  It is engineered to make you say "that's right!" by the time it reaches its inevitable conclusion.

Now, I'm not here to bash a movie like Fireproof.  I personally don't think it's a very good movie, but I also appreciate the fact that it allows people of faith to experience God in a different way.  I just wish there was a bit more open-mindedness about other films.

The Last Temptation of Christ remains amongst the most controversial films of all time in religious circles.  It shows Jesus trying to reject God.  It doesn't just talk about prostitutes, but shows them at their profession.  And it imagines a scenario in which Jesus saves himself from the cross and lives a normal life, getting married, having sex and growing old.

For Christians, Jesus is both God and human, but seeing him this human was beyond the pale.  A savior with human desires? No thank you.  Please give me the near robotic version of God's only Son I have seen in countless other films.  Even showing Christ in this way is to invite people to reject basic teachings of the Church.

But all of that focuses on what happens in the film, not what the film is about.  What the film is about is the weight of the choice Jesus makes.  In this telling, He could have decided at any point that He was done with dying for the sins of the entire world.  In another telling, He could have reigned hellfire and brimstone upon his tormentors.  The point is He is all-powerful and all-knowing, He could have decided we were not worth it at any point, but Jesus went through with it anyway.

Which is more powerful? A savior predestined to carry out God's will or one whose humanity screamed out against, but who went through with it anyway?

Noah will meet many of the same hurdles as The Last Temptation of Christ, except instead of whores and sex, it has... rock monsters.  Yes, there are large rock monsters in Noah. Okay, technically they are Watchers, fallen angels encased in earth described in the Book of Enoch, but let's just stick with rock monsters.

The rock monsters serve a thematic purpose, but what happens with them in the film is they serve as manual labor for Noah to help get the vessel built.  But the Book of Enoch isn't part of the Bible, so some Christians are freaking out.

The Watchers are an interesting part of the movie and what they represent works within the themes of Noah, but they are not what it is about.  What Darren Aronofsky successfully accomplishes here is showing the burden Noah has.

Russell Crowe's Noah lives in a world of chaos and death. He is a good man struggling to get by when he is given a simultaneously horrible and hopeful mission: to save enough animals to repopulate the world after God destroys it.

The film does a remarkable job of placing you in Noah's sandals.  Imagine you are chosen to save the world while every other human being in existence dies.  Imagine that becomes your life's mission.  What must that do to a man?

As interesting is the perspective of Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), a descendant of Cain, creation's first murderer.  Tubal-cain fully acknowledges the existence of the Creator, but he also knows that man was made in His image.  For Tubal-cain, this means every man is like a god and can take what he wants.  Tubal-cain (and the rest of humanity) misunderstand their place in the world.

Noah ultimately fulfills his mission, but he too misinterprets God's plan, believing that Noah and his family are only supposed to save the animals and then die, taking humanity with them.  But a surprise birth shakes Noah.  He is still convinced of his righteousness and decides the child must be killed.  But when he looks at the twins, his grandchildren, he can't do it.  Love wins out.

The bottom line is if your faith is so fragile that it either needs Mel Gibson to beat up Jim Caviziel for two hours or can be onliterated by Martin Scorsese and Willem DaFoe, that is probably a stronger commentary on the strength of your convictions then it is a endorsement or indictment of a film.

By humanizing Noah and Jesus in film, it makes me think and consider what they must have gone through in their time.  And that deepens my faith.  I don't need to accept every fact that these films present to me as Gospel for the perspective they provide to make me ponder my religion in new and more meaningful ways.

And that is more valuable to me then a million Kirk Cameron vehicles ever could be.