It’s rare that one might find migrant worker leader Cesar Chavez and Noah of the Ark fame compared to each other, but today’s the day to do it if you’re ever going to try. After all, they’re two stubborn leaders, living thousands of years apart, yet both felt they were called by God to lead the way for their people – and now have new biographical films released on the same day.
The first, “Cesar Chavez,” is a low-budget ($10 million) effort that is so earnest and straightforward that “effort” is in fact a more appropriate word for it than entertainment. The second, “Noah,” is a blockbuster-scaled $125 million epic that Hollywood studio behemoth Paramount hopes will flood the world’s theatres with moviegoers this weekend, but is both helped and hampered by massive pre-release speculation over whether it is a work of art or blasphemy.
“Chavez” follows just one decade in the life of the founder of the United Farm Workers union, a man who bravely bucked the abusive farming system in the 1960s and ‘70s to ensure that the hardscrabble migrant laborers who filled our stores with produce weren’t just steamrolled by the American Dream. Teaching these lowly and overlooked people to stand up for their basic human rights through courageous strikes and acts of civil disobedience, along with setting a powerful example with his own lengthy hunger strikes, Chavez wound up becoming an iconic figure to parallel Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi as the prime philosophical leader of his people.
This should be prime material for a rousing film, but unfortunately “Chavez” doesn’t often rise above the level of flatly presenting the intense struggles he had to deal with against police and politicians in the white power structure. Perhaps a larger budget would have enabled director Diego Luna – an acclaimed Mexican actor making his feature-directing debut here – to up the ante and tension, but there’s not enough in its present form to make the movie memorable.
Luna defied studio requests in not choosing Antonio Banderas for the title role, instead picking rising star Michael Pena, who was outstanding in 2012’s “End of Watch” but doesn’t do much with his charisma here. He may look like a dead ringer for the real Chavez, but he can’t convey the man’s passion effectively, with stronger performances registered by Rosario Dawson as fellow UFW organizer Dolores Huerta and America Ferrara as Chavez’s wife and mother of his eight children.
Bonus points can be given for the fact that Chavez is portrayed strongly as a Catholic, but the movie tries too hard to make him a modern-day saint and leaves out his darker, more complex sides that eventually led him to purge his ranks of people he feared were Communists. Overall, this is a nice try, and it’s great for youngsters to get a deeper idea of a great leader, but trust me they’ll be shown it in school for years to come anyway.
Meanwhile, “Noah” has all the money it needs to register as a giant epic, complete with superstar lead Russell Crowe as the bearded boat builder and Jennifer Connelly as his wife. (Both won Oscars playing a couple in “A Beautiful Mind” over a decade ago.) The alleged “problem” with the film is that its director, Darren Aronofsky, is an admitted atheist and that fact has worried many believers, who fear that he won’t show a Bible story with proper respect.
Fear not, however, for Aronofsky has had an abiding love of the Noah tale since childhood, and wanted to make this movie so badly that he agreed to give the studio final editing power rather than making them worry that he’d deliver a disbelieving harangue to the nation’s multiplexes. Add to that the fact that the studio exec in charge is one of Hollywood’s most openly devout Christians, and that the studio knows if they upset believers the movie dies, and there are three assurances that the movie will stay at least recognizable to the Bible’s version.
You know the basic story: Noah’s an average guy who suddenly feels that God is talking to him and warning him of a great flood that will wipe off every creature on earth. God has decided Noah’s so good that he deserves a warning and chance to float away with his family, and thus Noah begins his quest to build the biggest watercraft the world had ever seen.
According to the four-chapter version of the story in the Bible, Noah and his family survive, it land and start over, happily ever after. But four chapters aren’t enough material for a 2-and-a-half hour movie, so Aronofsky and his co-writer – an Old Testament scholar named Ari Handel – had to add several plotlines to sustain the film through its running time.
These storylines include angry human outsiders trying to wrest control of the ark from Noah to save themselves instead, with awesome battles between Noah and his family, and the evildoers. There’s also high drama that involves a surprise pregnancy and a group of fallen angels called The Watchers, who have been punished by God with spending eternity on earth encased in stone because they tried to intervene for mercy on Adam’s behalf when God threw Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden.
The Watchers seem like a ridiculous addition of course, but they grow on viewers as an exciting and impressive-looking force for good, which don’t detract from the core story. And I was surprised to learn from a nun in the audience that the Old Testament does mention giants that helped the good people of early times, so it looks like the filmmakers actually didn’t stretch too much anyway.
Having seen the movie on Wednesday night on the Paramount lot, allow me to debunk some of the nastiest smears being waged against Aronofsky’s final product. Rumors have swirled that the movie suggests that mankind’s environmental abuses take precedence over broad-based sin as the reason God sets His wrath upon the world with the flood.
In actuality, the movie opens with the story of Adam, Eve and the Garden of Eden, clearly spelling out from the film’s second sentence – in spoken narration and in writing on the screen - that mankind’s “sin” was the reason. Sin is largely described or seen in forms of unkindness and then violence, as people run and loot in terror while hopelessly trying to get ahead of the flood.
It also clearly shows that mankind’s arrogance and mockery of God’s will was a huge and punishable disrespect towards the Lord. And best of all, it depicts the Creation story of Genesis with riveting stylishness, bringing it to life again in a way that should move and impress audiences worldwide.
“Noah” also catches flak for not using the word “God,” but throughout the movie every major character constantly references the “Creator” and looks to the heavens, with Noah in particular dropping to his knees at several points while talking to the “Creator.” Last time I checked, the Nicene Creed said that God was the Creator of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen. And in the context of the times – during the first days of mankind striding the earth – it would seem only natural for people to consider God by the title of Creator since the dawn of Creation was still very fresh.
Noah himself engages in both silent and loud prayers with the Creator throughout the film, and the Creator times some of the greatest miracles and brightest moments to occur at moments when Noah’s actions merited reward. Thus, the Creator is a loving force as well, making the movie pro-God rather than a God-avoiding travesty.
But the nastiest lie being spread about the film by some evangelicals is that Noah’s teenage kids have incestuous sex together surreptitiously in the woods. The movie clearly shows that in an act of life-risking mercy, Noah and his family save a young girl, with a vicious wound in her belly, from certain death after other evildoers ravage her village.
Ten years later, she has grown into a lovely woman whom Noah’s oldest son falls in love with. As the flood approaches, she asks Noah’s grandfather, Methuselah (whom she also calls “grandfather” but out of loving respect as a basically-adopted child) to join them on the ark and instead, he heals her womb. She then is overcome by the desire to continue mankind and runs for the eldest son before it is implied that they have sex.
The two immediately admit to Noah what they have done, and ask his blessing as if seeking to be maritally united forever.
SPOILER ALERT: Having believed firmly that God wants mankind outside Noah’s family to be killed in the flood and that his own family is not to propagate the species either, Noah angrily swears that he will kill her child if it’s a girl. But when she actually delivers two girls, Noah ultimately refuses to kill the babies and earns God’s favor for it, in a storyline resembling the sacrifice Abraham was asked to make in killing his son.
This is not only not a depiction of incest, it is also played out in such a way that the subplot has a strong pro-life message that resonates with our bloodthirsty pro-abortion society of today (END SPOILER).
Add in the movie’s frequent dialog about how it takes two creatures, a male and a female, to propagate and restore the planet, and it is easy to see the movie as also defending traditional marriage or at least backing the Bible’s view of proper propagation.
What really seems to be happening here is that a small, yet hardcore faction of evangelical Christians want to see the Bible told their way or in no way at all. Yet there were four different visions in the Gospels that added up to the overall portrait of Christ Himself. And the Protestants rewrote the original texts to their own vision in the King James Bible, with yet other revisions being made for endless modern interpretations.
“Noah” shows a man standing against the evil of the men in his world, bowing repeatedly before his Creator and risking everything to do the Creator’s will. It takes a pro-life stand as well as a pro-God one, and uses stunning effects to bring the story to life in a way that could well make modern-day cynics believe the epic mission was entirely possible to pull off (Aronofsky insisted that his ark be built to the exact specifications used by Noah in the Bible).
If not every word is precisely on point with Scripture, then does it really matter when so much is done well? Is it really worth sacrificing a foothold in Hollywood for ever-better Bible films to be made?
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.