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‘Noah’ and the Jews

 
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Russell Crowe plays the title character in the biblical film epic “Noah.”

It is easy to think back to a time, not too long ago, when filmmakers, especially Jewish ones, shied away from a discussion of anything Jewish that might be apparent in their work. And so it was a special moment when I joined seven rabbis at a special screening of “Noah” in New York two weeks ago. The rabbis represented several Jewish organizations and a few Manhattan synagogues, and the group was invited not only to screen “Noah” but to chat with director Darren Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel afterward.

Such opportunities are singular, as most directors who tackle Jewish or biblical themes rarely open themselves up to questioning or even encourage discussion of their work with Jewish authorities. This was different. It seemed that both Mr. Aronofsky and Mr. Handel had seen their creation of “Noah” as an exercise in Jewish learning, a process that began years ago when a teenaged Mr. Aronofsky wrote a poem about Noah for a class assignment.

My first contact with the film project began a year ago, when I was invited to Brooklyn, along with a handful of Jewish educators, to begin a conversation with the filmmakers about their story and to visit the set, a magnificent four-story recreation in a Williamsburg armory, of Noah’s Ark, envisioned and built by Mark Friedberg. (Mr. Friedberg, kvelling, joined us for the Manhattan screening.) Mr. Aronofsky had called us in to get feedback on his interpretation of the Noah story. He explained that he and Mr. Handel had done extensive text study, culling from a variety of Jewish sources, including the Zohar. Now, a year later, he assembled this interdenominational group of rabbis to screen the movie and provide feedback. Their response was quite positive. The rabbis questioned the writers on a variety of issues and story points, asking how they had come up with their interpretations of text. They were pleased to note that these readings of the fixed Genesis text had some basis. Mr. Aronofsky was happy to refer to the film as his and Mr. Handel’s midrash on the Noah story.

Jewish tradition has a long history of encouraging interpretation of the “p’shat,” the literal text. Mr. Aronofsky and Mr. Handel have done so, drawing from a rich mix of rabbinic literature. In contrast, some Christian and Muslim scholars and clergy have had trouble with the film, because it changes the Noah story’s fixed literal reading. Because of this initial reaction, Paramount, the film’s distributor, has chosen to alter its advertising, now saying that the film was “inspired” by the Bible story.

Mr. Aronofsky was proud to describe his Jewish upbringing and share with us how important it was for him to make this motion picture. As a youth, he had planned to backpack across Europe, beginning in Israel, where he volunteered on a kibbutz. His expectations for helping Israeli agriculture were dashed when he found himself on an assembly line at the kibbutz’s plastic factory. In an online interview on his website, aronofsky.net, he noted, “So I ran away after two days. And if you have no money and you’re walking around the Western Wall in Jerusalem with a backpack, you get brought into religious sects that introduce you to mysticism, that show you the beauty and magic of religion, to bring you back into the fold.”

Mr. Aronofsky was affected by that experience and it found its way into his first narrative film. Text, interpretation, and choice of words are important ingredients in that film, “Pi,” made in 1998, a movie that would garner the young director a variety of awards and national attention. The film was about Max, a “numbers theorist,” who begins to make stock calculations based on his computer’s suggestions. He and his mentor, Sol, struggle with issues of mathematical logic, which only gets more complicated when Lenny introduces new questions related to gematria (a form of mystical mathematics that involves assigning numeric values to Hebrew letters). After “Pi,” Aronofsky made a series of strong, not always popular films, which included “Requiem for a Dream” and “The Fountain.” Most recently, he directed the highly acclaimed “The Wrestler” and “The Black Swan.” “Noah” marked a return to struggling with Jewish text.

“Noah” spends a great deal of time developing the character of the man who was chosen by the Creator to live through the catastrophic flood. Noah was righteous for his time, but as most commentators agree, he was an ordinary man in extraordinary times. Russell Crowe is excellent as Noah; he and Jennifer Connelly, as his wife, Naama, bring us a sense of a real couple struggling with intense difficulties. Anthony Hopkins, as always, is strong in his role as the sage Methuselah. But the real star of “Noah” is Emma Watson, who as Ila shows a broad swath of emotion as the late addition to the family. The film had a $150 million budget, and it seems that little expense was spared. I can attest that the moviemakers did their very best to make this story look as real as they could. They did an awesome job of giving us their interpretation of what happened in those four short chapters in B’reishit- the Book of Genesis.

Mr. Aronofsky chose to pull together a variety of stories in this epic film to best position it for popular consumption. There are the love stories, there are battles waged between the forces for evil and goodness, there are the sacrifices made to save the future, and there even are “Watchers,” Transformer-like characters who aid Noah in fulfilling his mission. There is even a moment when we see an Abraham story element introduced. Mr. Aronofsky was quick to say he inserted it “as a way to characterize God … that he is going to wipe out humanity … his creation. We were trying to put that in human terms.” There are enough moral questions and theological issues detailed onscreen to allow for great post-viewing discussions and Bible study. We even are treated to a refresher course on Creation and Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. “Noah” is pure enjoyment, though because of some of the brutality, it is not for the very young.

In our post-screening discussion, Mr. Aronofsky told us that he regretted calling Noah’s protectors “Watchers” rather than “Nephilim,” the term used in Genesis 6:4. “We thought it was too esoteric a term, but it is not,” he said. One of the attendees, Rabbi Noam Marans of Teaneck, the AJC’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations, showed me the reference to the Nephilim. It is at the end of parashat B’reishit, just before the Noah story. Rabbi Marans noted that the rabbis struggled with the question of who exactly the Nephilim — “who cohabitated with the daughters of man” — could be. Were they fallen angels? Some commentators thought so and Mr. Aronofsky and Mr. Handel provide their own interpretation of these “Watchers,” these Nephilim, in their film.

Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel invite you to delve into their midrash and challenge them. If you are ready for a fine biblical film epic, go see “Noah”!

Eric Goldman is adjunct professor of cinema at Yeshiva University. His most recent book is “The American Jewish Story through the Cinema” (University of Texas Press).

 
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When is a Jewish movie a Jewish movie?

I don’t quite get it.

The New York Jewish Film Festival opened on Wednesday, and it seems to me that about one third of the 47 films screened there are not Jewish movies. That doesn’t make much sense to me. When I go to see films at a Jewish film festival, I expect to see films that are in some way Jewish.

For me, a Jewish film is a movie about anything related to the Jewish experience. The 24th New York Jewish Film Festival is presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Jewish Museum. When I questioned Aviva Weintraub, who is the museum’s associate curator and the director of the festival, about the selection committee’s choices, she said, “Our goal is for the program as a whole to add up to more than the sum of the individual films. Each season, we strive to deepen the definition from the most obvious, evidently Jewish characters, Israel, and/or historical Jewish events to a broader perspective.”

 

Big-screen reinvention of Exodus is empty as the parted Red Sea

The story of the Exodus from Egypt is a tale as old as time, to borrow a turn of phrase. It’s retold every Passover, both at the seder table and whenever “The Ten Commandments” is aired on television. But the latest adaptation—Ridley Scott’s epic film, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” — fails to meet expectations.

Scott’s “Exodus” alters the source material to ground the tale, but the attempt to reinvent the biblical narrative becomes laughable. Moses (Christian Bale) saves the life of his adoptive brother Ramses (Joel Edgerton) during a battle with a Hittite army, recalling an earlier prophecy that the skeptic Moses laughed off. He learns of his lineage from Nun (Sir Ben Kingsley), which leads to his exile by the now-Pharaoh Ramses II. During this nine-year exile, Moses has a child with Zipporah (Maria Valverde) and climbs a forbidden mountain — only to hit his head, see a burning bush, and get a request from a child messenger of God.

 

‘Above and Beyond’

Every once in a while, a filmmaker captures the essence of what the State of Israel means to the Jewish people in general and to America’s Jews in particular.

“Above and Beyond” provides a remarkable look at the birth of Israel’s air force. Perhaps more importantly, it considers the ways in which Israel can affect the lives of Jews in America.

On one level, this is a film about a group of veteran World War II pilots and navigators who volunteered to fly airplanes for Israel during the 1948 War of Independence, when Israel’s enemies had air power and Israel did not. This story has been told on film before, but after she saw the obituary of Al Schwimmer in 2011, producer Nancy Spielberg decided to provide a broader look at the “band of brothers” who changed the course of Jewish history, and who indeed may have saved Israel at a time when its very existence was at risk.

 

RECENTLYADDED

‘Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem’

Bureaucracy often has been a great subject for cinema.

Many of its foibles are universal; over the years, we have been treated to films from all parts of the world that tackled issues of citizen rights vs. the travails of dealing with government. Not surprisingly, Israeli filmmakers have used cinema to try to bring some of these issues out in the open, hoping that public discussion might pave the way for change. Two of the great ‘60s classics of Israeli cinema, “Sallah” and “The Blaumilch Canal,” written by satirist Ephraim Kishon, showed how ordinary Israeli citizens met with obstacle after obstacle as they tried to find their way in their society. Now, with “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” co-directors and co-screenwriters Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz have delved into the all-too-problematic issue of divorce in Israel; they very much hope the film will spark greater public debate and change.

 

‘Above and Beyond’

Every once in a while, a filmmaker captures the essence of what the State of Israel means to the Jewish people in general and to America’s Jews in particular.

“Above and Beyond” provides a remarkable look at the birth of Israel’s air force. Perhaps more importantly, it considers the ways in which Israel can affect the lives of Jews in America.

On one level, this is a film about a group of veteran World War II pilots and navigators who volunteered to fly airplanes for Israel during the 1948 War of Independence, when Israel’s enemies had air power and Israel did not. This story has been told on film before, but after she saw the obituary of Al Schwimmer in 2011, producer Nancy Spielberg decided to provide a broader look at the “band of brothers” who changed the course of Jewish history, and who indeed may have saved Israel at a time when its very existence was at risk.

 

Meet Stefan Zweig

Jewish novelist who inspired ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is having a comeback

Wes Anderson’s whimsical film “The Grand Budapest Hotel” was nominated for nine Academy Awards last week, just days after winning the Golden Globe for Best Comedy or Musical.

Named one of the best films of the year by several top critics, it could earn Anderson, a director whose cult following has steadily grown over the past decade, his first Oscar.

It also is likely to raise the profile of Stefan Zweig, the Austrian Jewish novelist who, Anderson has said, inspired the film’s quirky Eastern European setting and several of its characters.

Indeed, a new book about him, “The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World,” just won the Jewish Book Council’s National Jewish Book Award for Best Jewish Biography.

 
 
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