Pop Off: Spotlight on Christian films
This year has seen a strange resurgence in Christian movies. We've already had: "Son of God," a Jesus centric recut of the History Channel's "The Bible" miniseries, "God's Not Dead" an atrocity more about Christianity's fear of atheistic fascism than a crisis of faith, and the upcoming "Heaven Is For Real," a piece of fluff whose trailer is downright sickening. Christian films aren't uncommon, but like most genres focused on a niche audience who care more about reassurance in the theme than the actual artistic quality, they normally exist in the form of straight to DVD releases. Is there an underlying explanation for the surge of Christian films hitting theatres?
First, I would like to be clear that I am not attacking Christianity, just their movies. Almost all Christian films are awful and suffer from the same two problems. The most obvious one is a lack of talent, but this is true of many tertiary genre films. The second is a core dynamic that makes the film completely pointless. In a Christian film, the conflict on a textual or a sub-textual level is faith vs. lack of faith. Spoiler alert: whichever side God is on wins and the protagonist succeeds because of his/her loyalty to their beliefs. When you know that going in, why bother?
Going back to the original question, we are in the middle of Lent and Easter is right around the corner-it's the optimal season for Christian media. "The Passion of the Christ" had its theatrical run around the same time in 2004. But I theorize that the true answer lies in a movie that is on the surface the most Christian movie to come out this year, and beneath it the least: "Noah."
Darren Aronofsky's "Noah" is an incarnation of the Noah's Ark story, a part of the book of Genesis. One of the most well-known parts of the Old Testament, Noah comes at a point when God decides to flood the Earth for 40 days to rid the planet of sin and essentially start over with Noah as the first man, having survived the flood on a boat where he kept two of every animal. Upon release of the film's trailer, Christian audiences assumed they were in for a treat and secular audiences groaned at the sight of what they assumed to be another preachy Bible movie. It grossed a solid $44 million in its opening weekend, but half of what "The Passion of the Christ" raked in over the same time. It has also become one of the few movies on Rotten Tomatoes where the audience's score is significantly below the critics' score. Perhaps this is because it was being seen by the wrong people.
Aronofsky is not a Christian filmmaker. He's actually Jewish, or at least was raised Jewish, and is one of the most brilliant directors working today. His films tend to focus on fundamental fears deep within the human mind. "The Fountain" was about the fear of immortality, "The Wrestler" was about the fear of aging and leaving behind a personal era of glory for one of uncertainty and "Black Swan" was about the fear of years of backbreaking training to refine a single skill being all for nothing. Much to my dismay, I wasn't able to see "Noah" this past weekend due to a number of circumstances best compositely described as "college." But it appears to be about the fear of being the subject beneath an omniscient creator who can completely change the landscape of existence at will. It's appropriate as the Old Testament is the God-fearing portion of the Bible, as opposed to the New Testament, which is more about God-loving. What "Noah" may be saying, intentionally or otherwise, is that following a faith can bring about as much terror to the mind as it does solace and joy. It might even call into question the true reason why the faithful worship a deity- out of love, loyalty and the prospect of salvation, or pure human fear.
Aronofsky's version of the tale, which he himself has called "the least Biblical Biblical film ever made," strays heavily from what is taught in Sunday schools. This version not only focuses more on the internal conflict Noah faces having been selected to be the only survivor of an apocalyptic disaster, but also contains a Biblical world that much closer resembles one of Pagan mythology. This is because in earlier versions of the Bible, the pre Noah era had the Earth running rampant with angels, demons and a number of other creatures who quite frankly would have made Sunday school a lot less boring, at least for me. These earlier version of Noah suggest that the flood was not meant to wipeout the sinful humanity that God was dissatisfied with, but rather to wipe out everything but humanity.
The thing about earlier versions of the Bible is, the institution of Christianity likes to pretend that they don't exist. After all, how trustworthy is an evolving scripture? While the film has been endorsed by a number of Christian groups, others have condemned "Noah" for straying from how it is presented in the Bible today. It's worth noting that the "Noah" project has been in the works for a long time, with the first draft the screenplay written in 2003. With a name as talented as Aronofsky, it's not easy to hide works in progress. With Paramount having made multiple cuts of "Noah," its release has been anticipated for a while. This leads me to wonder if the slew of Christian films coming out is not an attempt to piggyback off of the success of "Noah," but rather to counteract it. Christian studios want to tell their stories in the way they see proper, not the Aronofsky's version which violates their message. If that's true, it appears that so far "Noah" cannot be eclipsed and I personally hope it remains that way.
Whether or not "Noah" turns out to be a good movie, Darren Aronofsky has made a bold move in his unorthodox adaptation. He joins the ranks of immortals Cecil B. Demille and Martin Scorcese for using the Bible not as a catalyst for a pro-faith message, but to tell a dramatic human story that can compel contemporary audiences. The effort alone should be applauded.
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