Saturday, 5 April 2014

Noah and interpretation (spoilers!)

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"Noah" is this year's Biblical blockbuster. One shows up every once in a while, presenting us with radical interpretations of the stories that those growing up in the church, and in the Christian-influenced West, think we know like the back of our hands. "The Passion of the Christ", for example. Remember the controversy surrounding that film? Despite attempts to incorporate historical context, including various languages, "The Passion" was criticized for its graphic violence, anti-Semitic undertones, and rushed resolution. It did, however, spark numerous discussions.

Noah is a similar kind of film; it may also be criticized for the graphic violence and the difficult relationship that is set up between Noah and God: for half the movie, one begins to wonder if Noah has actually become crazy, as he waits around with a knife to kill his grandchild because he believes it is God's will. SO MUCH PSYCHOLOGICAL TRAUMA this family goes through. For the first time, Noah getting drunk in the post-flood world makes sense to me.

We could talk about how this is Biblical or how this is not Biblical and all that, but since that wasn't the intention of making this film, let's talk about creative interpretation instead. Every choice in this movie was one that made sense thematically within the film narrative. The rock angels act as a kind of parallel to humanity: a spirit in a earth-bound body that have "fallen"; the redemption of humanity is foreshadowed by their forgiveness and following communion with God once their earthly bodies are destroyed. The warlord who sneaks onto the ark is an embodiment of sin, showing that humanity still carries the terrible potential for evil with them. Like Noah says, his family is no different than anyone that dies in the flood.  Noah interprets this to mean that God wishes them all to die out, to leave the innocent animals free and safe in the new world. Methuselah, well, I'm on the fence about him: as a kind of mystic, he does act as a catalyst for the plot and perhaps manifests another part of God's will (a trickster?), but I was afraid he was going to eat everyone. Anyways. Back to interpretation.

Interpretation itself is key to this film on so many levels. The filmmakers are interpreting the Biblical narrative and creatively expanding on what the text only hints at. They engage with the difficult questions, the most difficult of which is probably, where's God's mercy in the flood narrative? Noah is also faced with the difficult and relateable task of discerning what it is that God wants him to do. Think of his first vision of the flood: there is only one word to accompany the strong images that he must interpret in order to take the next step. He interprets the mountain as Methuselah, the bloody earth as humankind's corrupting sin, and the flower as new life. The vision is only a part of God's plan. Noah must travel on before God gives him the next part of the vision. It's when Noah begins to interpret God's will in a way where his own certainty becomes more important than the nuanced plan that God has for his family that things start to go sideways. Even Ila's interpretation of God's plan for Noah that reconciles him with his family is only one way of looking at the events - it is not accompanied by heavenly choruses or bright lights. There still may be other reasons and purposes for Noah's involvement in the flood that God has not made known yet. (placing this film in a post-modernist vein, where many perspectives are engaged to negotiate meaning).

In "Noah", the "correct" interpretation is very rarely set forth in definite terms. The voice of God does not boom through the film. People like Noah, like us, have to take into consideration all the voices and images and compare them to what we know of God to figure out what on earth it is that we're supposed to do next.

As the audience, we also are in a role of interpretation. For myself, despite the very pessimistic view of human nature and the near despair that Noah reaches as he tries to drink away his shame, the mercy of God is apparent in the film, even in the midst of the gruesome and terrible wickedness and death that stampedes through Noah's story: even when we would kill, God will save. Even when we would destroy, God will rebuild. Even when we would desire revenge, God will provide forgiveness. Even when we would die from guilt, God will reconcile.

"Noah," uses the framework of the flood narrative to explore the questions that we ourselves struggle with in today's world: how do we know what God wants us to do? How do we reconcile God's mercy with his justice? Is humanity corrupted beyond saving? How do we deal with evil: do we become wicked to drive out wickedness, or do we love in spite of it? Although I will probably not watch the film again (too much psychological trauma!), it gave me plenty to think about.

For another perspective on the film, check out Nate's blog for an engaging and intelligent look at "Noah" in terms of art-making:

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