Thousand Words – The Portrait Of The Religious Movie By An Atheist Director

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the visually focused film magazine that proves there’s more to film than meets the eye. The Big Picture is running a series of features and reviews throughout April with the theme of ‘faith’. This piece is part of the site’s Thousand Words section and examines why many of the most thoughtful films about religion come from atheist directors.

Ever since its earliest days, cinema has, to quote the esteemed French critic André Bazin, “always been interested in God”.

Whether it be biblical tales of all scales and budgets, stories about saints and sinners, or more grounded accounts of everyday church professionals, filmmakers have consistently returned to the well of religion to draw inspiration.

Many of the most thoughtful and challenging cinematic examinations of religion come from directors who are declared atheists or agnostics; a fascinating paradox that begs the question – just what is it that drives such filmmakers to explore religious themes?

The most recent, and certainly lavish, example is Exodus: Gods And Kings (2014); Sir Ridley Scott’s epic retelling of the Moses story.

Exodus: Gods and Kings

Scott, an atheist who once declared that “the biggest source of evil is, of course, religion”, has dipped his toe into such waters before with Kingdom Of Heaven (2005), his controversial 12th-century Crusades drama, released at the height of George W. Bush’s War on Terror, which asked why Christians and Muslims can’t just get along.

Scott has spoken of choosing to strip superstition and supernaturalism out to find his way into the story and this is reflected in the logical way the plagues are explained by Ewen Bremner’s Expert, while Moses’ vision of God comes from a knock to the head. Scott’s most interesting decision is to depict God as a petulant young boy, who is accused by Moses of acting out of revenge, not love.

Exodus: Gods And Kings proved a hard sell to the same Christian groups who didn’t take kindly to Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2014), whose eponymous central figure the atheist director has described as “the first environmentalist”. Aronofsky’s singular vision (he called it the “least-biblical biblical film ever made”) of a zealot driven to the brink of madness by his mission from “the creator” and the presence of giant angels made out of rock proved too subversive for some.

The CGI effects and huge budgets of such tentpole blockbusters are in stark contrast to the work of Ingmar Bergman, whose austere ascetic belies the emotional explosiveness of his dramas.

Winter Light

Reconciling his “tormented and joyless relationship with God” in his autobiography The Magic Lantern, Bergman concludes: “When you die, you are extinguished. From being you will be transformed to non-being.”

Having previously addressed God’s silence in the likes of The Seventh Seal (1957) (“Why can’t I kill God within me?” asks the medieval knight, to which Death replies: “Perhaps no-one is there.”), Bergman returned to this theme as the crux of a trilogy of powerful and devastating masterpieces: Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1962) and The Silence (1963).

The trilogy can be distilled to a key scene in Winter Light involving a depressed Pastor (Gunnar Björnstrand), who goes through the motions for his diminishing congregation in spite of his own faith having evaporated since his wife’s death, and the Sexton (Algot Frövik).

Rather than the physical pain Jesus endured in his final hours (“It couldn’t have been all that bad”), the Sexton suggests Christ’s real torment was emotional, having been abandoned by his disciples and seized by doubt in his last moments on the cross. “Surely that must have been his greatest hardship? God’s silence,” suggests the Sexton, to which the Pastor can only meekly respond: “Yes…”

The Gospel According to St Matthew

The life of Christ has been portrayed countless times on film, but none have done so with the poetic power of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According To St Matthew (1964).

Pasolini is a fascinating figure; a homosexual and atheist who embarked on the film after reading the New Testament in a hotel room and explained his philosophy in a press conference thus: “I may be an unbeliever, but I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief.”

Unlike most other depictions of Christ’s life, The Gospel According To St Matthew‘s neorealist approach is striking for just how raw and unvarnished it is. Imbued with Pasolini’s Marxist leanings, Jesus is portrayed as a revolutionary leader who expects and demands the word of God be listened to and obeyed. Arguably the most wholly realised biblical movie ever made, it speaks volumes about The Gospel According To St Matthew that it sits within the Vatican’s list of 45 great movies.

Another atheist filmmaker who appears on that list is Luis Buñuel (for his 1959 film Nazarin); which is amusing as many of his films openly mock the Roman Catholic Church.

Buñuel is well-known for his merciless satirical style, but few institutions get it in the neck as sharply as organised religion, whether it be subverting the image of Christ in L’Age d’Or (1930), or playfully portraying Satan as a busty blonde trying to tempt the saintly title character off the pillar he has sat atop for six years, six weeks and six days in Simon Of The Desert (1965).

Buñuel remained an uncompromising figure, as the following passage from his autobiography My Last Sigh attests: “If someone were to prove to me – right this minute – that God, in all his luminousness, exists, it wouldn’t change a single aspect of my behaviour.”

Equally uncompromising was Robert Bresson, who revisited the themes of redemption, salvation and grace throughout his celebrated career and became regarded as the “patron saint” of cinema; ironic considering the director once cryptically described himself as a “Christian atheist”.

Au Hasard Balthazar

Set in a convent, the metaphysical thriller Angels Of Sin (1943) is a daring and assured first feature that immediately established the director’s unique style. The beauty of grace is central to the spiritual odyssey that is Diary Of A Country Priest (1951), while The Trial Of Joan Of Arc (1962) is unsparing in the suffering handed out to the Christ-like Maid of Orléans.

However, it’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) that remains arguably his most divine film, a work described by Jean-Luc Godard as “the world in an hour-and-a-half”. Like Joan, the saintly donkey Balthazar endures cruelties and humiliations with a nobility that rises above the sadistic instincts of his human masters – with the exception of the vulnerable Marie (Anne Wiazemsky), who also withstands the torment of others.

Cinema is storytelling and religion is rife with stories; so should it be any wonder that the most transcendent filmmakers explore such themes, be they believers or not?

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Review – Noah

Bonkers, bizarre and brilliant in equal measure, it’s fair to say there won’t be another film quite like Darren Aronofsky’s Noah this – or perhaps any – year.

In an age of identikit blockbusters, Noah should be applauded for having the courage of its convictions to offer an experience you won't soon forget

In an age of identikit blockbusters, Noah should be applauded for having the courage of its convictions to offer an experience you won’t soon forget

The Bible’s many film adaptations have invariably been of the epic variety; overblown ‘event’ movies that are as extravagant as they are huge.

While Noah doesn’t skimp on the computer-generated bombast, it’s also the product of a singular vision – one that both captivates and infuriates.

Throughout his career, Aronofsky’s films have centred on obsessively driven characters; whether they be the cast of Requiem For A Dream (2000) seeking the next fix, Natalie’s Portman’s ballet dancer going to any lengths to reach the top of the pile in Black Swan (2010), or Hugh Jackman’s various incarnations of the same character searching for the tree of life in The Fountain (2006).

The 'Creator' gets angry in Noah

The ‘Creator’ gets angry in Noah

Noah represents his most fanatical character yet – a husband and father whose response to an apocalyptic vision received from ‘the Creator’ is to spend years building a giant ark to save the animal kingdom from the impending flood.

The world Noah (Russell Crowe) and his family inhabit has been ravaged by mankind’s greed and corruption. They eke out a nomadic life away from the rest of humanity in a shattered, lunar landscape (Iceland in reality) ruled by Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), descendant of Adam and Eve’s murderous son Cain.

Noah (Russell Crowe) finally feels the rain in Noah

Noah (Russell Crowe) finally feels the rain in Noah

A fearful Tubal-Cain is determined to seize the ark, but must first build an army to overcome the Watchers; crazy-looking fallen angels encrusted in rock who aid Noah in his mammoth task and come across as the craggy cousins of the talking trees from The Lord Of The Rings.

When it finally does come, the flood is impressively staged. The sense of chaotic desperation among Tubal-Cain and his followers to fight their way onto the ark as Noah and the Watchers try to keep them back is both unnerving and edge-of-the-seat stuff. However, the most chilling and indelible image comes later as the last vestiges of mankind cling hopelessly to a rapidly submerging rock, wailing in vain at the nearby ark as Noah blanks out their screams.

Noah's family, son Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll), wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), son Shem (Douglas Booth) and adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson) in Noah

Noah’s family, son Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll), wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), son Shem (Douglas Booth) and adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson) in Noah

It’s a truly nightmarish moment that sets up the film’s final act as an increasingly dogmatic Noah turns his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), sons Shem (Douglas Booth) and Ham (Logan Lerman) and adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson) against him when he declares his work won’t be finished until the ultimate sacrifice is made.

Just as with The Fountain, Noah is predominately a spiritualist film rather than an overtly religious one (reflective of Aronofsky’s personal beliefs). It also carries an urgent environmental message – as global warming brings with it rising sea levels, scorched earth and dwindling resources, may we too be forced to start again when the proverbial crap hits the fan?

"Take the ark!!" - Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone) gets mad in Noah

“Take the ark!!” – Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone) gets mad in Noah

The film has a curious mix of the fantastical (a strange, dog-like beast being hunted by Tubal-Cain’s men; the Watchers; huge stars shining brightly in the daytime) and the grittily authentic. In spite of the larger-than-life connotations of the source material, Aronofsky never lets us forget these are human beings making stomach-churning decisions.

The anger and bewilderment expressed by Shem and Ham towards their merciless father when the screams of those left outside the ark are heard is entirely believable. At one point, a sickened Shem pleads to Noah to let them in, pointing out that not everyone can be ‘guilty’. Noah’s response is to state that every human has a darkness inside of them, a point given form earlier in the film when Noah sneaks into Tubal-Cain’s sin-laden camp and sees a vision of himself giving into his base instincts in order to survive.

Have ark, will travel - Noah and co prepare for the storm in Noah

Have ark, will travel – Noah and co prepare for the storm in Noah

By staging the flood halfway through the movie, one imagines Aronofsky aimed for the real drama to take place within the confines of the ark. However, rather than being the dramatic cannonball he was hoping for, this final act curiously fails to engage and ends up going off the deep end. Perhaps it’s Noah’s incessant reiteration that everyone must accept their punishment that ultimately proves the biggest turn off.

Whatever misgivings one may have here are counterbalanced by the much talked about ‘creation sequence’, reinterpreted by Aronofsky’s time-lapsed visuals as the journey of evolution from the big bang (“Let there be light”) to man’s inhumanity to man. It’s a bravura scene that’s worth the price of admission alone.

Noah's son Ham (Logan Lerman) runs for his life in Noah

Noah’s son Ham (Logan Lerman) runs for his life in Noah

In his best performance for years, Crowe gives a truly affecting performance of a man being pushed beyond his limits while carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. While a very physical performer, Crowe does his best work with his eyes by showing the terrible emotional pain he endures in order to carry out the Creator’s work.

Connelly’s Naameh is the crux both we and her family lean on to navigate our way through these turbulent waters and her performance is excellent. Winstone does what he does best as the unhinged Tubal-Cain, who appears to be history’s first Cockney, while an ancient-looking Anthony Hopkins has a twinkle in his eye as Noah’s grandfather Methuselah.

In an age of identikit blockbusters, Noah should be applauded for having the courage of its convictions to offer an experience you won’t soon forget.