The biblical version of the Flood is, at its heart, a story about men. At the outset God promises to establish his covenant with Noah, only then adding “and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you” (Gen 6:18). It is as though these other characters are no more than luggage to be picked up and carried aboard. Left unsaid is how Noah’s wife feels about her husband hearing divine voices, building an ark, and preaching a message of apocalyptic doom. Similarly, the reader never hears how the wives of Shem, Ham, and Japheth might have felt about their father-in-law’s curious undertaking. Did these women ever question the divine plan to destroy the world recounted to them by Noah or his sons? Were these women embarrassed by the actions of a religious maniac? Were they reluctant but obedient followers? Or were they equally zealous in Noah’s commitment? For the most part, it is as if the women of the Flood narrative do not exist. In the biblical text, they remain unnamed and unvoiced, leaving gendered gaps in a story that nevertheless ends in the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.”
Watching Aronofky’s Noah, any number of details jump out: the barren landscape of pre-Flood Palestine, the heart-breaking story of the Watchers who desperately desire to return to their Creator, the complex, gritty character of Noah and his increasingly obsessive behavior, the fact that God never once directly speaks, instead communicating with Noah in a series of signs and dreams. While God is left noticeably unvoiced in Noah, Aronofsky’s film does enable a central set of characters to speak: the voiceless women of the biblical narrative. And, in many ways, it’s the presence of the voiced women in the unfolding story of Aronokfky’s Flood that make this movie work. They revise any simplistic theological expectations and preconceived notions about justice, mercy, and a Creator who calls on his faithful to watch the rest of the world drown.
Naamah, Noah’s wife, is initially supportive and loving, always shown with a babe in her arms; she is a typical Sunday School matriarch. Ila, unknown from the biblical account but who plays the adopted daughter of Noah and Shem’s eventual wife in the film, is likewise supportive, kind, and grateful for her inclusion in Noah’s family; at the beginning of the film, she is depicted as continually preparing the ark for the oncoming Flood while also piously fending off the advances of Shem since she knows that she cannot provide him with children. Surprisingly, neither Ham nor Japheth have wives in the movie, though Noah’s claim that the Creator will provide his sons with future partners sets up the potent story of Ham as middle-child and eventual outsider.
The power of the women in Noah stems not only from the fact that they give voice to the silenced women of the biblical narrative, but also from the fact that they are the characters who insist on voicing the questions that the biblical text leaves unasked: what is the relationship between justice and mercy, between blind obedience and thoughtful questioning, between judgment and forgiveness, and between life and death? The woman of Noah repeatedly confront an overly obedient, overly just Noah (and, perhaps, his rigid understanding of the Creator). Through the presence of the women, the film asks: sure, Noah might have been the most righteous man in his generation, but what good is that if he’s not willing to question what seems unfair? As many readers are well aware, it is difficult not to wish that the biblical Noah were a little less Noah-like and a little more like Abraham at Sodom and Gomorrah. Surely, we should hear Noah ask at least once about the innocent children who will die in the flood or about the equally innocent animals that won’t make it onto the ark. Aronofsky highlights this troubling aspect of the biblical account in his depiction of Noah. Aronofsky’s Noah comes across as a pious man, to be sure, but also one who at times is overly focused on pure, retributive justice. Aronofsky’s Noah embraces this vision of justice to the extreme: Noah and his family are meant to save the animals and plant life, but they themselves must eventually die, alongside the rest of humanity. For this Noah, humanity is to be wiped out for its mistakes without question.
The women in Noah remind both Noah and viewers that justice must sometimes bend in the direction of mercy. Perhaps this is most strongly felt in the story of Na’el, who is Ham’s would-be-wife. Noah—the same man who will not eat meat and who scolds Japheth for plucking up a flower—chooses not to save this woman, not even for his own son. The story of Na’el, however brief, is a powerful reminder of how far Aronofsky’s Noah will go to rid the world of humanity. Equally formidable is the scene where Jennifer Connolly as Naamah finally confronts Noah, reminding him of the need for mercy and forgiveness: too much justice leads not to saving the planet but, ultimately, only to destroying it all over again. Finally, Ila and her words become the heart of the film; in the post-Flood scene on the beach, Ila—a paradigm of forgiveness over judgment and justice—comforts a despondent Noah, “You chose mercy. You chose love.” And she reminds Noah of why he was chosen, “He chose you because you saw the wickedness of man and knew you wouldn’t look away. But there is goodness, too.” In the film, Ila is both insider and outsider, both respectful and inquisitive. Ultimately, she is responsible for post-Flood life and for seeing the beauty in that. Significantly, Aronofsky’s storyline does not limit Ila to the role of woman-as-womb. The post-Flood Noah is wracked with self-reproach, flattened by his initial unflinching commitment to divine justice. It is the voice of Ila that brings Noah out of his drunken state of post-Flood guilt. In her final speech to Noah, Ila balances forgiveness and mercy while also recognizing both the wickedness and the goodness of humanity. Certainly, she restores human life with her womb, but, equally importantly, she restores to Noah his own life and sets the stage for him to bless humanity’s continued existence. Aronokfsy transforms the forgotten women of the ark into the voiced characters whose words weave together to rebuild a destroyed planet and a broken Noah.
Watch out, world. There are some new heroes aboard the Ark.