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Is "Noah" NSFW? Blame the Bible

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire March 28, 2014 at 11:26AM

Some of the aspects of Darren Aronofsky's "Noah" that may give Christian viewers pause come straight from the book of Genesis.
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Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connolly in "Noah"
Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connolly in "Noah"

It takes nothing away from the fine work of A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis to point out that some of the sharpest writing in the New York Times' film section lies outside of their reviews -- specifically in the italicized explanations of the MPAA ratings that immediately follow them. Scott's explanation of "Noah's" PG-13 is an instant classic:

Noah

By quoting straight from the book of Genesis, Scott drives home the point that as much as conservative Christian organizations like Focus on the Family -- which, incidentally, has given "Noah" its seal of approval -- have set themselves up as society's morality police, the Bible itself is often NSFW. The watchdog site Common Sense Media recommends "Noah" for children 14 and up, balancing its positive role models and messages against its depiction of violence and sex. 

At Christianity Today, whose reviews regularly flag films for content that might give their readers pause, Alissa Wilkinson devotes several paragraphs to her "Caveat Spectator," including this delightfully cheeky warning:

The movie includes the story from Genesis (this is a spoiler if you haven't read Genesis) in which Noah gets drunk and lies naked in a cave, and must be covered by his sons. We see Noah drinking and know he is becoming intoxicated, and the actual shot of his nakedness is from a distance; we get a tiny, distant view of his nude backside.

In other words, contemporary Christians should be mindful of seeing Noah not because it departs from its Biblical source but because it's faithful to it. (The MPAA explanation might as well read, "Rated PG-13 for fidelity to scripture.") The God of the Old Testament is not a cuddly uncle but a stern and distant father, issuing oracular pronouncements and leaving poor, imperfect Noah to bear the strain of deciphering them.

In her review, Wilkinson implicitly argues that the sight-unseen attacks on "Noah" from right-wing pundits have much more to do with present-day politics than religious piety. One of the most persistent critiques of the "Noah" is that the word "God" is never uttered, a metric more commonly applied to presidential addresses and the Pledge of Allegiance. But as Wilkinson points out, "Ten generations out from the creation, and before God reveals his personal name to man (which is not 'God,' incidentally), it would make sense for people to think of God largely as 'the Creator.'"

The characters in Noah -- all of them, including the bad guys -- believe in God. This is not a world with atheists or agnostics. This is a world where people live a very, very long time, long enough to pass stories down to their children, and where the presence of the Creator is still felt very strongly.

And so, the characters -- again, all of them, even the bad guys -- talk of God as "the Creator." They listen to him (though he does not speak audibly in the film, a filmmaking choice that Aronofsky and Handel have explained as an attempt to keep from trivializing the voice of God by assigning a human voice, usually Morgan Freeman, to him). They sometimes rail against him, but they know he's there. And he is certainly named.

As Wilkinson points out, "Noah" doesn't depart from scripture so much as it fills in the gaps. Genesis mentions Noah's three sons, but not his wife; the movie gives him one, as well as an invented love interest, played by Emma Watson, so that humanity has a mother to birth its future generations. Some of Aronofsky's extrapolations push the boundary between audacious and off-the-rails, especially the transformation of the Bible's "giants" into rock-encrusted fallen angels known as Watchers. But even that falls within the rabbinical tradition of Midrash, which involves supplementing scriptural ellipses to convert Bible stories into dramatically coherent narratives. As Biblical scholar and critic Steven Greydanus explains in the National Catholic Register,

Adding to the story is normal and expected in any biblical adaptation or any adaptation of any literary source material. Virtually all Bible movies add or elaborate upon characters, dialogue, motivations and other elements, either to help clarify the story, to imagine how it could have been or for other artistic reasons.

Although Paramount clumsily played keepaway with critics, it turns out most of them, Christian and non- alike, are at least sympathetic to Aronofksy's vision, and many are squarely in his corner. (If anything, this round of reviews is more positive than the first.) As for their complaints, at least a few of them should be directed not at Aronofsky, but at the man upstairs.


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