Jean Daniélou was one of Roman Catholicism’s key twentieth-century theologians. A French Jesuit and ressourcement thinker, Daniélou had a great love for the Church Fathers, notably Gregory of Nyssa, the subject of his earliest writings. But he was no antiquarian; he was a cultural critic, well-read in other religions as well as classical literature and the modern secular corpus. In 1969, he was made a cardinal by Pope Paul VI, and he died in 1974, less than two years after his election to the prestigious Académie française.
His Essai sur le Mystère de l’Histoire (1953) or, as it is commonly titled in English, The Lord of History, was composed while Daniélou was a professor at the Catholic University of Paris. His writings at this time were pioneering the Covenantal theology movement in Catholicism, which emphasized interpreting the Bible through the sequence of covenants in salvation history. It was, moreover, a deliberate move away from historical-critical methods aimed at uncovering a literal meaning, and a return to Patristic methods, including the classical “fourfold sense.”
The Lord of History can thus be seen as a seminal work in this project, especially as regards a Christian theology of history. Daniélou’s work in this respect on the Greek Fathers was later complemented by Joseph Ratzinger’s exposition of the Latin Fathers on similar themes.
However Noah looked from the previews, I went into the theater determined to give the film a fair chance. The opening scenes took me aback as rather amateurish. When I left the theater, my feelings toward the film were ambivalent. When my friends and I ended up in a forty-minute conversation about its themes and message, I realized that the film operated on two levels, distinct yet so cluttered together that they are jarring as they play out on the screen. One level is that of a pseudo-Biblical “epic” offering us objects of contemplation as diverse and contrived as magic seeds from Eden that grow forests overnight and six-armed rock-Ents taking on armies. It is this level only that some will see and leave disappointed. The other, lower level is the true human epic, where questions of justice, mercy, righteousness, and free will converge on the broken, confused, devout figure of Noah.
I have now seen four of Aronofsky’s films. The disturbing and erratic Pi, the gut-wrenching Requiem for a Dream, and the delicate spires of The Fountain each testify to the fundamental eccentricity of Aronofsky’s direction, the heady blend of brilliance and borderline silliness that leaves the viewer a slightly different person when the credits roll. Noah, despite its potential appeal to a mainstream audience, fits readily within that canon. It is frustrating and beautiful. Iceland is on gorgeous display; the CGI is acceptable. The acting is flawless, while the dialogue ranges from subtle and gripping to embarrassing and comical. The more “traditional” Hollywood elements (i.e., action scenes and Biblical mayhem) were probably pumped up by Paramount, which was no doubt desirous of nurturing a blockbuster, anxious to please both the action movie fan and the wary evangelical. This often gaudy surface level at times obscures the nuance and complexity of the lower level, but not always, and we the viewers are offered enough glimpses into the rich inner drama to come away feeling that the movie was messy and flawed and a little wacky, but also, somehow, profound.