The Film Noah: A Spiritual Perspective by Sr. Marie Paul Curley

The Film Noah: A Spiritual Perspective by Sr. Marie Paul Curley

A bleak film with bold artistic choices, Noah has proven controversial to people of faith who have screened it. And perhaps deservedly so, since the artistic choices seem less about delving deeply into the scriptural story and more about creating a riveting story for the screen. Rather than an official review, I’d like to offer a few personal reflections that are more of a spiritual commentary.

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The Film vs. the Bible

Noah is a profound film that takes seriously the story and themes that it explores. I suspect that the wide range of opinions about this film has a lot to do with personal taste—for example, whether you like how this film relies heavily on elements from the post-apocalyptic and science fiction genres. I find it important make the distinction that Noah is not a “biblical” adaptation of Genesis that is faithful to the details. Nevertheless, the film resonates with several biblical themes, and these aspects of the film offer material for reflection for the mature Christian.

Three things struck me almost immediately about the film:

1) Many of the essentials of the Genesis account of creation are taken for granted as really having happened: God as Creator, God creating the human person in God’s image, God giving humanity the care of the earth, the reality of evil. In this film, sin has serious consequences. The re-tellings of the story of creation include the fall of Adam and Eve in a way that highlights their fall from grace. Noah takes the sinfulness of humanity seriously, and with its post-apocalyptic approach, can serve as a warning to people today that our sins—personal and societal—are destructive not just in the hereafter, but here and now.

2) Noah is an extremely dark film—visually, narratively, and in the portrayal of its characters. Of course, the main event in the movie is catastrophically tragic. This dismal darkness “floods” the rest of the film as well. Humanity is not only destroying itself through pride, violence, and greed, but has corrupted the earth into a desolate wasteland. (For Noah to build the ark, God has to miraculously provide trees.) The innocent animals that are miraculously drawn to the ark are not portrayed in their natural beauty, but arrive in hordes which are impressive but not necessarily beautiful. As the flood begins, the filmmakers add an especially sinister storyline that builds to an almost unbearable tension between Noah and his family, and within Noah himself. Although the film ends with a note of hope, it wasn’t enough to dispel the overall darkness that burdens the film’s vision of God, the human person, and of Noah.

3) Apart from its acceptance of God as the Almighty Creator, the film is mainly a humanist account of the biblical story of Noah, with some random “magical” touches thrown in. For me, Noah’s faith lacked a vertical dimension: he doesn’t seem to have a real relationship with God. In the film, God “speaks” to Noah in a dream through images, leaving Noah to have to search for his grandfather to discover what God wants him to do about the flooding of the world. This is quite different from Genesis, in which “Noah walks with God,” an image that implies a close relationship (see Gen. 6:9). And God tells Noah directly what he wants him to do (Gen 6–7), which also implies a real relationship.

Despite a great performance by Russell Crowe, this cinematic Noah doesn’t seem to represent well the Noah in Genesis—a faith-filled man who struggled with the problem of evil and the consequences of sin, but in the context of his relationship with God and his knowledge of God’s saving will. Noah’s central struggle for the second half of the film wasn’t credible. He changes radically from seeking to follow God’s mysterious will into judgmental fanaticism. This change doesn’t seem true to his character in the film, nor to the biblical figure or account. (I can’t be more specific without giving further spoilers.) The absence of a loving God—who is so grieved over the corruption, destruction, and suffering of the people in the world that he wants to renew creation, giving the world and humanity a fresh start—is another reason why this film does not fully reflect the Genesis account. We may not understand why God sent a flood, but Genesis makes it clear that God wants to bring about a rebirth of new life.

 Vision of the Person/Vision of God

A couple of themes that the film delves into deserve special attention: the view of the human person, and the view of God that the film offers.

* The vision of the human person is particularly troublesome in the film, but it can also provide an opening point for conversation and even challenge false assumptions.

All the characters accept (and many repeat) the truth that the human person is made in the image of God. But they don’t agree on what that means. Several characters offer a definition of what it means to be human. While none offer compelling answers, this question, “What does it mean to be made in the image of God?” is a great way to start a conversation.

Any of us who have confronted evil within ourselves or in the world will be interested in the film’s central question: is humanity irredeemable? The main ways humanity is shown to have become corrupt is by destroying the earth and not reverencing animal life. Yet, the film is mostly silent about the reverence due to human life, making it seem as if even Noah values animal and plant life over human life. (When we look closely at the story of Noah in Genesis, killing another human being is a very serious sinsee Gen. 9:6).  

Because God sends a flood, the prevailing judgment for most of the film seems to be a dismal picture of a humanity so twisted by evil as to be beyond hope. Nevertheless, the ending of the film offers hope—and a clear affirmation that God wants to bless humanity, as sinful as we are (Noah and his family included). Of course, the scriptural answer to this question of judgment reaches beyond a simple “yes” or “no.” The most important truth about us as human beings is not whether we are flawed or sinful, but that we are loved. Even in our sinfulness, God wants to save us.

* I find the vision of God in the film quite problematic. The God who “walks with Noah,” who wants to save, is absent from the film until almost the very end. Immature faith often makes sense of painful situations by blaming God, when in many cases the cause of our pain and tragedy is the sinfulness of humanity. According to the film, humanity had pretty much destroyed the earth and people were dying of starvation. In such a post-apocalyptic world, the consequences of humanity’s misuse of the earth might also include a massive flood. Some might even argue that a flood could be a mercifully quick way for people to die who would have otherwise starved to death or been terrorized for months as they killed each other off. For most of the film, we are left with a sense of a God who wants to destroy all life on earth—the aspect of Noah’s story that is indeed deeply disturbing. But the image of God weeping over humanity’s pain is almost entirely missing from the film—it is represented briefly by Noah’s wife and adopted daughter.

Hope in Darkness

We may never understand how God could send a flood, or allow it to destroy so many lives. Yet the story of Noah both in Genesis and in this film can help us to try to make sense of the catastrophes we face. Stories of a huge flood destroying all life on earth are represented in many ancient cultures. But several things make the story in Genesis quite different from other early stories of a flood:

  • God wants to save Noah and his family, who are good yet sinful. Noah is portrayed as having a real relationship with God, who lived as God intended
  • God knows that Noah is human and imperfect, but he saves Noah and his family anyway—humanity is not irredeemable but precious in God’s eyes.
  • God wants to give humankind a new beginning, free from evil.
  • God’s fidelity lasts beyond sin, beyond any destruction that we can cause through our evil choices.
  • God wants to always bring us to new life. God is justice, but God is also mercy.

There are certainly many other aspects of the film that could lead to fruitful discussion: the portrayal of the Watchers (fallen angels?), the horror of evil, justice as seen through God’s eyes, how this film speaks to the urgent need today to protect the earth and all life, and the story of Noah and the flood as an image of Baptism. Due to the darkness of themes, violence, and dreary portrayals, this is certainly not a film for children. And I don’t recommend this film as an entryway to faith, nor would I particularly encourage believers to see the film because it’s a biblical story.

However, Noah’s solid cinematic values, with its convincing performances, an engaging pace, remarkable sequences, and a well-structured storyline, make it a powerful exploration of sin. Noah is worth a thoughtful viewing from mature Christian film buffs, especially those who like to explore theme and artistry in film. 

For me, the bleak picture of humanity and the focus on humanity’s sinfulness is not that spiritually helpful. Noah offers us a warning of the consequences of sinful choices, but the films I find more helpful are ones that both startle me with their incisive judgment of evil, while at the same time surprise me with the beauty and goodness with which I am called to live, a beauty and goodness that reflect God. Perhaps this void, this shocking absence of beauty is where Noah really fails. When I become disheartened in my struggles against sin, drowning in the darkness isn’t helpful. Instead, looking towards the light and reaching towards the loving face of a God who sends rainbows as well as rain, is what helps to transform my struggle with sin into a moment of grace.

Other thoughtful commentaries you may wish to read:  a statement from Signis, the international association of Catholic media persons in TV, Cinema and Radio, Father Robert Barron's perspective on the film as a post-modern midrash, and Stephen D. Greydanus’s comments and theological reflection.

Sr. Marie Paul Curley on Salt + Light Radio Hour


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Inspiration, Spiritual Film Commentary