Spoiler alert: This review discloses the most pivotal moments of the movie Noah.
Although I had not seen Noah and honestly had no desire to see it, I was fascinated by the polarity of the reviews – I read dozens, and interviews of the authors as well. Over time I decided I just had to see it for myself. I didn’t expect to like it because I generally don’t like movies that have fantastical elements to them and epic battles and people encrusted with dirt and grime. Much to my surprise I not only liked it, I loved it. I loved it because I thought it told the story of Noah in a fascinating way, one that made of it, not implausibly, the story of a man facing a tremendous moral dilemma, one reminiscent but only reminiscent of Abraham and his moral dilemma of disobeying God or killing his son. The ways the stories differ is fascinating and highly instructive. God achieves his different ends in different ways for different people.
Having received a very clear directive from God, Abraham does not doubt that God is truly asking him to kill Isaac. Although he seems to go about his task calmly, we are sure he experiences inner anguish. After all, we assume Mary, who undoubtedly trusted God without qualification, nonetheless suffered greatly to see her son die. An angel of the Lord tells Abraham to stop. All of Christendom understands that story to be a story of exemplary faithfulness on Abraham’s part and a precursor to God’s willingness to sacrifice his own son because of his faithfulness to his people.
A disturbing feature of the movie Noah is that Noah goes against what he thought God wanted from him. He believes that God wants him and his family to be the last human beings on the earth. He believes this means he must kill the twin female babies born to Ila, his daughter-in-law, because they will be the source of new human life. Like Abraham, Noah does not kill the children, not because an angel from God stops him but because he discovers he has so much love in his heart that he cannot bring himself to kill them. The audience cannot but cheer for Noah and for the saved lives of the children.
Those who think a good God could never be justified in wiping out most of mankind conclude that the movie portrays Noah doing the right thing against a heartless and punitive God. Noah ceases to be a mindless tool of God and asserts his freedom to act as he thinks fit.
To those of us who think the most important thing in the world is to do God’s will even when it involves horrendous sacrifice, Noah could well seem a failed hero and we are somewhat reluctant to cheer. Noah doesn’t do God’s will; he caves. Is he a hero or a villain?
What is the message of this film?
First things first. How is God portrayed in this movie? I think God is portrayed throughout as good, abundantly good. The first sense we get of God’s presence in the movie is a drop of water from heaven. This reminded me of the unforgettable tear that God sheds from the heavens in the movie the Passion. Here the drop of water, or the tear of God, causes a new flower to grow instantaneously. A small miracle but one that indicates that God intends to revive life. It is striking that no one speaks against God in the movie, not even the evil people. He is always called the Creator, and his creation is spoken of and shown to be a beautiful place. When the Watchers die in the course of doing something kind for mankind, they are whisked off to heaven. Even the arch-villain of the piece, Tubal-Cain, speaks admirably of the powers that the Creator gave to man, making man in his own image. God is admired as good by all, though not all want to bend their wills to God.
It is the Creator’s action, in fact, that shows Noah that he misinterpreted his command. More about that in a moment.
Noah is portrayed as truly a righteous man (I found Russell Crowe’s portrayal of Noah outstanding). He reveres the gift of creation and God; he wants to be fully faithful to the Creator’s commands because he knows the Creator is good. Noah is loving, gentle and kind to his family when appropriate and strict and authoritative when appropriate. He is a manly and godly father and husband.
Noah, however, disapproves of the evil that men have done even more than God does. He abhors the evil done by his fellow man, not only because it is evil, but because it is an affront to the goodness of the Creator. He rightly acknowledges that evil is present even in good human beings and seems to think that evil is sufficient to warrant the obliteration of all human beings from the face of the earth. Noah’s distorted view of humanity – which is not God’s view – is what leads Noah to misunderstand what God has commanded. God is loving, just, and merciful and does not want to wipe out all of mankind: he saves Noah and his family, because, although flawed, they are righteous.
Noah initially shows a love for humanity beyond his own family when in a situation of danger he nobly rescues a dying girl and adopts her into his family. He treats her lovingly when she speaks of how she is worthless because barren. In a very tender scene he tells her he feared she would be a burden to the family but that she has been nothing but a blessing. Yet, later in the film, after he observes the grotesque evil in the city of Tubal-Cain, Noah does not make an effort to save the “girlfriend” of his son Ham, a son who believes he will never have a wife for himself. Noah seems to refuse to help her because she is one of the evil people, and he sees no good in them. This is impressed upon us later when Ham insists that she was good.
Noah welcomes the eventual disappearance of evil humankind, until he realizes that to fulfill his task he may need to kill his own grandchild – if it is a female. That realization causes him great anguish. The anger he experiences at the report of a pregnancy is that it requires him to do something he desperately does not want to do; he does not want to kill anything: he is tender to plants and animals and wounded humans (well, some), certainly not a family member. Moreover, his wife, who to this point has expressed great admiration for Noah and the way he faces his challenges, tells him that she and his whole family will hate him if he kills his grandchild and will never forgive him. Although this threat weighs heavily on Noah, he remains resolute in his intention to do what he thinks God wants him to do. Still Noah is not at all at ease with his task. He storms heaven with prayer to ask God if this is what God really wants from him. He gets no answer.
While Noah is building the ark, God is working in the background to teach Noah that it is not his will that the whole human race be obliterated from the earth. Noah’s wife, not at all in agreement that humankind should end, goes to Methuselah, Noah’s great grandfather, to convince him to come and give a blessing to Ila, the barren young woman Noah saved, and the beloved of his son Shem. That blessing miraculously restores Ila’s fertility, Ila who had previously resisted Shem’s advances because she was barren. As a result of a surge of fertile hormones Ila runs and flings herself at Shem and becomes pregnant. Their joyful unitive and procreative love-making and baby-making are a fantastic hopeful moment in a very bleak world. Ila is pregnant, as it turns out, not with a single male child (which would not have caused a problem) but with twin girls who clearly are intended to be the future wives of Noah’s other two sons. A clear sign, to those who have eyes to see, that God does not mean to destroy humanity.
Noah doesn’t recognize the sign, he has so worked himself into an indomitable intention to fulfill God’s will. But as he raises the knife with the intent to kill the twins, he cannot do it and says that the reason he cannot do it, is that his heart is filled only with love for the twins. And let us be clear, Noah is not preferring emotion over reason; he is acting in accord with the rightly ordered profound love that people are meant to have for each other, especially in the face of the miracle of new life. What happens in the Noah movie should not lead us to think that “feelings” can outweigh the necessity of following God’s commands. Rather, it is that God gives us graces in many ways to know what he truly commands – sometimes by moving our hearts. Noah was a righteous man who ardently wanted to do God’s will. God helped him do so.
Again, Noah does not immediately realize he has in fact done God’s will, that in fact, God has not willed the destruction of mankind. No, Noah is filled with a great sorrow that he tries to drown in alcohol. He separates himself from his family. I believe he does so because he no longer feels he is a righteous man. Author Aronofsky provides one of the best interpretations I have heard of Noah’s drunkenness and nakedness after his successful venture. He was deeply conflicted about what he had done and stripped himself of all that was his.
God gently leads Noah to see that he should not condemn himself. In a sweet and loving conversation, the mother of the twins remarks to Noah that there was a reason that God chose Noah, that he knew what was in Noah’s heart. Godly consolation from one Noah had previously consoled! It is at that moment that Noah seems to realize that he has not done wrong in letting the babies live. Noah then approaches his wife from whom he has been estranged. Earlier in the film we saw Adam and Eve move apart and out of the garden after their original sin. Now we see Naameh planting a garden; as Noah approaches her, their hands touch deep in the soil from which new life will come. The final scene even seems to be a kind of baptismal scene; the water of the flood ensures that the righteous shall go forth.
In case we are dense too and missed the message of the movie, we are treated to tender pictures of animals with their baby offspring and we realize that Noah’s fatherly heart is what God the father wanted to save and cultivate – to cultivate with love. The Creator’s universe teems with love and life: the Creator fully intends them to go together and those males and females who let their fatherly and motherly and godly hearts guide them are the ones truly alive to God’s goodness.