Noah: Aronofsky on Obsession, Madness and Loss
by Peter Rollins
April 1, 2014
With the financial success of films like God’s Not Dead and Son of Man, alongside the fact that other religious movies are being feverishly produced, 2014 has been christened “year of the bible” in Hollywood.
The first big budget film of the year that aims to cash in on this relatively untapped religious market is Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. At first blush it can be read as little more than a cynical Hollywood attempt to tap into a new monetary vein while still sucking from the one that’s fed them thus far. Offer up the relatively safe mix of eye-popping CGI, highly choreographed battles, and simple emotional motivations to appeal to the average moviegoer, while wooing the faithful with a literalistic retelling of a biblical story.
Indeed it seem like the next logical step following the success that came from the producers of Superman, who created a series of sermons based on the film. Sermons written especially so that evangelical leaders could preach from the pulpit about how spiritual it was.
Yet, if this was the motivation of the producers, then it quickly becomes evident that Aronofsky outsmarted them by effectively building a Trojan horse out of the big budget blockbuster format so as to smuggle in a subversive and religiously disturbing content.
The exquisite scandal of Noah becomes clear when one views it in light of Aronofsky’s directorial debut, the darkly mesmerizing Pi. For while Noah is indeed Aronofsky’s first big budget film, it is his second cinematic exploration of the link between religious obsession and madness.
In Pi, the protagonist’s unrelenting drive for a formula that will unlock the secrets of the universe is revealed to be nothing less than a search for the name of God, a search that ends up in his mental and physical breakdown. In Noah, the protagonist undergoes a similar mental collapse when attempting to remain true to his divine call. While both films offer up different conclusions they each share the same fundamental theme.
It’s hard to miss the similarities that exist between Aronofsky’s Noah and Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. For in both a deeply literal and faithful reading of a biblical event is employed to explore a monstrous horror embedded within it. For Kierkegaard; Abraham and Isaac. For Aronofsky; Noah and the flood.
It’s not surprising then that the religious market has broadly rejected the film even though it seems to support their cause. The problem for a religious believer is not that it fails to be literal enough, but that its very literalism uncovers a disturbing truth: that too close a relation to the Other results in a form of madness and death.
Just as Abraham and Isaac are a type of cipher for Kierkegaard, so to is Noah for Aronofsky. In Fear and Trembling we must take a step back from the text in order to see that this is in fact a deeply personal book in which he is wrestling with his love for Regina: the woman who owns his heart, and yet who remains, of necessity, forever distant. Regina stands in for the ultimate object of Kierkegaard’s desire, she is a sun that enslaves him in an impossible orbit, an orbit that prevents him from spinning into space or crashing into the flames (in a painfully poetic way this proximate distance continues to play out even in death, for Kierkegaard is buried just across the way from where Regina lies with her husband).
In the same way it is possible to perceive in Noah a very personal wrestling with what it means to obsessively love something, while maintaining a distance from it.
Psychoanalytically speaking, one might say that Noah is then dealing with the incestuous temptation to transcend the barrier separating us from the desire of The Thing (that Other which we want more than life itself). The choices we have in the face of this temptation being either to (i) break through the prohibition and succumb to a form of death, or (ii) accept the barrier and live with an insatiable sense of loss.
Theologically speaking Noah (alongside Pi) can be read as cinematic expressions of Radical Theology, for Radical Theology can be said to precisely contend with the problematic of separation and loss from The Thing. Structurally speaking then, both Noah and Pi can be read as complex cinematic narratives exploring the consequences of getting too close to the object of our desire.
While Pi has a more radical, and pessimistic, conclusion, Noah offers us some hope. For as Noah is finally able to lay down his obsessive desire, and enter into the play of interpretation, he begins to heal. He is ultimately successful in separating himself from his incestuous desire to be a mouthpiece for his God and is reborn as a man marked by a loss, yet able to return once more to his family and to the everyday concerns of being in the world.