Aronofsky’s ‘Noah’ launches into a storm of controversies

By John Horn / Los Angeles Times

Published Mar 28, 2014 at 12:01AM

Biblical Hollywood

This list barely scratches the surface of a genre that has its roots in the silent era.

“The Ten Commandments” (1956): Director Cecil B. DeMille ended his long and storied career with a remake of his own 1923 silent-era drama with this massive, glittering epic. Charlton Heston is Moses in this production, which also stars Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Vincent Price and 25,000 extras.

“King of Kings” (1961): Director Nicholas Ray (“Rebel Without a Cause,” “Johnny Guitar”) and screenwriter Philip Yordan put a political spin on Christ’s familiar story in this drama that stars Jeffrey Hunter as a fair, blue-eyed Jesus.

“Ben-Hur” (1959): He played Moses in “The Ten Commandments” and John the Baptist in “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (1965), but Judah Ben-Hur was the greatest of Charlton Heston’s biblical roles. The chariot race is thrilling, but there is more to recommend in William Wyler’s opulent classic, not the least of which is its sheer scope.

“Jesus of Nazareth” (1977): “A Clockwork Orange” scribe Anthony Burgess was among the writers on Franco Zeffirelli’s six-hour miniseries and later wrote a novel, “The Man of Nazareth,” based on the teleplay. Robert Powell is yet another blue-eyed Jesus .

“David and Bathsheba” (1951): “Mighty as Goliath! Fiery as Their Love!” read the tagline of this romantic drama, which is the first clue that this sumptuous production has dispensed with piety in favor of the thrill of adultery. The lavish tale stars Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward.

“The Passion of the Christ” (2004): It’s been a decade since Mel Gibson’s controversial drama opened on Ash Wednesday to a rapturous reception. It grossed more than $600 million worldwide, but critics perceived anti-Semitism in Gibson’s storytelling.

“The Prince of Egypt” (1998): Val Kilmer is the voice of Moses and Ralph Fiennes his nemesis Ramses in this animated version of the Bible tale. This DreamWorks production is terrific, especially when it comes to such things as a plague of locusts swarming the kingdom.

— Pam Grady, San Francisco Chronicle

MEXICO CITY — A lot of people think they know what the real story of the movie “Noah” should be.

They are likely some of the same people who think they know what the real story of the man Noah is.

Darren Aronofsky, the director of the new movie about the man and the great flood, is ready to rain on what he believes is their misinformed parade.

“Noah has been turned into a nursery school story,” said the director and co-writer of “Noah.” “And it’s not a nursery school story in the Bible. It’s the end of the world.”

Rarely in recent years has a movie generated as much polarizing opinion before its release as “Noah,” a $130-million drama arriving in U.S. theaters today. The film stars Russell Crowe as the man who builds a giant ark as God wipes a sinful mankind from the planet; Jennifer Connelly plays his wife, Naameh, with Anthony Hopkins as his grandfather, Methuselah.

The movie is the target of a fatwa from a leading Egyptian Sunni Muslim institution because Noah is mentioned in the Koran and therefore not suitable for artistic depiction. Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have banned the film, with other Middle Eastern countries expected to follow. Closer to home, where in theory there is more religious tolerance, “Noah” has already been attacked by the Christian right for its creative license.

Paramount Pictures, which co-financed “Noah” with New Regency and is distributing the film, believes much of the censure has come from people who haven’t seen the film and were responding to secondhand accounts of an outdated screenplay.

One conservative Christian organization, the National Religious Broadcasters, threatened to boycott the film unless Paramount put out a marketing disclaimer. Without telling Aronofsky, the studio decided to modify advertising materials by saying the movie was “inspired by” the story of Noah rather than be seen as literal scripture.

At the center of the storm stands a weary Aronofsky, whose strongly personal films include “Black Swan” and “The Wrestler” and who is a veteran of tough battles with studios and executives over the years.

The 45-year-old filmmaker has been thinking a lot about Noah ever since he wrote a prize-winning poem about the Bible story called “The Dove” when he was 13. He and screenwriter Ari Handel have been working on the “Noah” script for a decade, burying themselves in research — “I read everything,” said Aronofsky, who can pass for an armchair religious scholar — and consulting with an array of Jewish and Christian theologians.

Now that the 2-hour-17-minute film has been screened, the result of their investigations is obvious: “Noah” is one of the most overtly spiritual movies any big Hollywood studio has made in years (both the current “Son of God” and Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004 were independently produced).

“The creator made Adam in His image, then placed the world in his care,” is one of the very first lines of dialogue in the film.

And even if Crowe has the lead role, the real star of the movie is the concept of original sin.

The forthcoming debate around the film will likely focus on how the filmmaker has expanded the Noah story into a full-length film. As Aronofsky points out, the Genesis tale of Noah, for all of its enduring power, is fleeting in the Bible, and Noah doesn’t speak until a dove returns with an olive branch. That doesn’t make for much of a movie.

“When you really look at the story in the Bible, there’s very, very little information,” Aronofsky said. “It’s four chapters long. No one speaks until the end. And the Noah character doesn’t really have an arc — with a ‘c.’ But the more you read it, the more interesting clues there are. There are many, many hints at things.”

In the end, Aronofsky sees a purpose behind the story.

“To go all the way from the beauty of creation to the grieving of God’s heart in 10 generations made us think there is a lot of story there,” the director said. “The pain that the creator must have felt to be contemplating destroying His creation — we wanted to personify that. So we tried to connect that story to Noah’s story, and we made Noah a personified, humanized version of God’s journey. And God’s journey in the story is from a God who wants justice to a God who grants mercy.”