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Posts Tagged ‘Russell Crowe’

Noah Poster

Links: Part One, Part Two, Part Three

I went to see “Noah” on a beautiful Sunday afternoon.  Fortunately, the movie ended soon enough that I could enjoy a nice, leisurely walk outside afterwards.  After seeing this movie, I looked on the beauty of the trees, the birds, and the sunlight, reflecting on God’s sustenance of all things, with greater joy and gratitude.  In this final installment of my commentary, I want to talk about why.

Noah6Let’s have a look at some pretty bad timing: After deciding that the human race must end with him and his family, Noah (Russell Crowe) learns that his son, Shem (Douglas Booth), and his beloved, Ila (Emma Watson), are having a child.  As patriarch and leader aboard the ark, Noah makes a firm decision: If the child is a boy, then he will replace Noah’s youngest child as the last man on earth.  If it is a girl — if it is a fruitful female human being, capable of bearing new life — he will have to kill her.

In spite of the entreaties of his family, Noah will not be moved.  He believes firmly, based on a process of discernment, that this is the will of the Creator.

“This gives me no pleasure,” he says to his wife. “But it is just.”

From that point on, there is an atmosphere of darkness, tension, and impending doom upon the ark — and I sincerely hope everyone who sees this movie feels it.  I certainly did.

Think about this from an existential perspective.  It is one thing to be facing catastrophe and death.  It is one thing to be uncertain whether we will survive or not.  It’s even one thing to intuit that we will not survive whatever ordeal we are facing.

But it is quite another when we come to understand that we should not be spared.

It is not simply, as a materialistic atheist might argue, that there is no real reason for man to be saved.  It’s worse than that.  Rather, it is right that we should die.

Our hearts yearn for life, and our instincts are geared toward survival.  So what do we do when we come to the sobering realization that there is absolutely nothing in justice to plead our cause?

Our hope rests in the…well, in the hope that the Creator will exercise mercy, that He will give us another chance.

Noah and Family

And this is exactly what happens at the end of “Noah.”  When he tries to carry out the execution of the baby girls, Noah finds that he cannot do it.  When he looks at their faces, he feels nothing in his heart but love.

That’s where it starts.  Then the waters of the Great Flood recede, and the family is given a new start on dry land.  And at the very end, in an impressive cinematic display, a rainbow — the sign of God’s Covenant with the world through Noah — fills the sky.

God has chosen mercy.  They know not why, but they know it, and can be glad.

Of course, the Gospel tells us why…

Christ Crucified by VelazquezThe Creator Himself, in the Person of the Word, foreseeing human sinfulness, determined from before the creation of the world to take on our human nature and, in His innocence, to take our guilt, shame, and curse upon Himself.  This He did on Calvary about 2,000 years ago.  The consequences we have earned for ourselves, He suffers in our place.  Having risen from the dead and ascended to the Father in heaven, He, the “spotless victim,” now advocates for us, always pleading that God be glorified in mercy.

As a cradle Catholic, I knew this; but it never really touched me to the core until I saw this movie (which is, no doubt, informed by the larger Old Testament narrative of which it is a part — a story of God’s unwavering faithfulness to His children even in the face of their unfaithfulness).

Now, at last, I truly understand how the greatest witnesses of the Faith could endure so much suffering and martyrdom throughout the years and still remain joyful.  We have been forgiven.  No one who turns to God in sincerity will be turned away.

I’ll say it again: We have been forgiven!  Let us strive to understand what that means.

Images from Wikipedia

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Noah Poster

Links: Part One, Part Two

Let’s start by briefly outlining the film’s plot:

  1. Noah (Russell Crowe) learns through a dream vision that the Creator is going to destroy the world with water.
  2. He discerns that while the flood cannot be escaped, it “can be survived;” so he and his family get to work on building an ark to save “the innocents” — that is, the animals…who, in the words of young Ila, still “do as they did in the garden (of Eden).”
  3. Noah eventually realizes that the same evil that is in the Sons of Cain, who have spoiled the earth, is dormant in him and his family as well; from this, he deduces that his family’s mission is to save what is left of creation and then die out so that God can begin anew…without humanity.

Let’s stop here for a moment.  Keeping in mind that Noah and his family are kept alive after the Flood, to give not only the world but also humanity a new beginning, we nevertheless do sense an echo of some modern environmentalist modes of thought.  There are those who say that in order to avert impending environmental crises, we must of necessity limit the growth of the human population (via contraception, for example), and in some cases even snuff it out (via abortion, for example).

Whatever the case, the bottom line of this kind of thinking is that mankind is the enemy of creation; and if this enemy doesn’t need to be destroyed, it must at least be crippled.

NaamehIronically, it is the woman of the family who argues against this impulse in “Noah.”  Noah’s wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), urges her husband to see that in spite of the corruption that is undeniably present, there is good to be found in humanity.

I call this ironic because the aforementioned environmentalist approach is often associated with the feminine, while the more pro-human approach is associated with the dominating, conquering masculine principle.  “Noah” reverses the situation entirely, giving the family patriarch the “man-must-die-so-nature-can-survive” initiative.

noah8As counter-intuitive as this might appear, it makes sense; in fact, it’s not really counter-intuitive.  A mother loves her children, and the lives of her children, like no one else can.  A mother’s heart, more than any other, will see the good in her children and fuel zeal for their preservation and flourishing.

Pope BenedictPope Emeritus Benedict XVI often spoke of a “human ecology,” noting that an imbalance in the environment always conduces to the harm of humankind (we can see that, for instance, in that way that certain pollutants affect the health of children with asthma).  And, as we observed in part two, humankind’s failure to flourish negatively impacts the rest of creation.  So it’s not an either-or scenario — it is simply a matter of knowing where things stand in the order of creation.

In a sense, Noah’s first impulse (as depicted in Darren Aronofsky’s film) was right: Man must die if things are to be made right.  But this is not a death of annihilation, nor even primarily of the natural death we all must face.  Rather, as I have argued elsewhere, we must learn to deny the satisfaction of our selfish desires and learn to live for God and neighbor…and, in that context, to be good stewards of the world God has given us.

Christ Crucified by Velazquez

Indeed, our model for this way of living must be no less that Jesus Christ Himself, after the pattern of His complete self-offering on the cross.  And that leads us naturally into our next, and final, topic in reflecting on “Noah.”  Stay tuned.

All “Noah” images obtained through a Google image search; images of Pope Benedict XVI and Christ crucified from Wikipedia

 

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Noah2014Poster

Note: If you are interested in reading part one, click here

In his great book — which I have referenced before, and which I highly encourage people to read — “Love is Stronger Than Death,” Peter Kreeft makes the following observation about modern man’s scientific/technological dream:

The (immortality) Pill will be the fulfillment of one of our deepest and darkest dreams, the Oedipus complex.  Now we will be able to kill our father (God), and marry our mother (earth).  For without death, and with an earthly technological paradise (. . .) (w)e can now return with our phallic power of technology into our birth canal.”

Neither I nor Kreeft are suggesting that modern technology is bad.  But our technological pride and idolatry of “progress” has led to a certain rape of nature.

Original Sin

What we tend to forget, however, is that this is merely one manifestation of a phenomenon that has been going on since the beginning of human history.  When the first human beings defied God and thus fell from grace, they brought a curse upon the earth.

The harmony in which (our first parents) had found themselves, thanks to original justice, is now destroyed: the control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body is shattered; the union of man and woman becomes subject to tensions, their relations henceforth marked by lust and domination. Harmony with creation is broken: visible creation has become alien and hostile to man. Because of man, creation is now subject “to its bondage to decay”.  (CCC 400 — bold added)

The Bible is very clear that humankind has dominion over the earth.  But this is not, was never, and never will be a dominion of selfish use.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it this way:

Animals (. . .) plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity. Use of the mineral, vegetable, and animal resources of the universe cannot be divorced from respect for moral imperatives. Man’s dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation.

Animals are God’s creatures. He surrounds them with his providential care. By their mere existence they bless him and give him glory. Thus men owe them kindness. We should recall the gentleness with which saints like St. Francis of Assisi or St. Philip Neri treated animals.

God entrusted animals to the stewardship of those whom he created in his own image.

(CCC 2415-2417 — bold added)

Ray WinstoneDarren Aronofsky, co-writer/director of “Noah,” gives us a key example of the opposite impulse — the one given rise to by the Fall of Adam and Eve — in Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone).  At one point, we see him grabbing a live animal and biting off its head; he defends his action by saying that God put mankind at the top of creation, and therefore all other creatures on this earth serve man.

The implication is that as masters, we can do whatever we want with the rest of creation, no matter the cost to it.

Noah_Steward

But again, this is not the Divine directive.  The true nature of man’s dominion over the earth is more clearly reflected in the lives of Noah (Russell Crowe) and his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly).  Their family takes on the role of stewards, or caretakers, of God’s creation.  They use only what they need, and they devote themselves to tending the earth and its creatures as they would the Garden of Eden.

Why am I talking about all of this?  Believe it or not, it’s not because today is Earth Day.  The timing of this post is fitting, but purely coincidental (at least as far as my intentions go; I can’t say that God did not, in His providence, have something to do with it).  Many Christians took issue with “Noah,” labeling it vegan propaganda and a mistreatment of God’s Word by imposing modern environmentalist ideas onto it.

I hope, however, that I have demonstrated the film’s portrayal of concern for creation to be, in fact, perfectly Biblical and authentically Christian.

If not…

Jrrt_lotr_cover_design …take a look at J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings”…

Chronicles of Narnia…or at C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia.”

Tolkien and Lewis were both deeply Christian and very much immersed in the Biblical worldview.  They saw the connection we have been exploring very clearly, and it comes across powerfully in their work.

Let’s end with a bottom line that goes back to the Kreeft quote: Sin is about making ourselves God; when we make ourselves God, we become selfish and domineering; when we become selfish and domineering, our fellow human beings and the world entrusted to our care suffer.

I do have a little bit more to say about this subject in relation to the movie “Noah.”  But in the interest of a certain kind of “stewardship” over my readers’ eyes and patience, I’ll wait ’till next time.

All “Noah” images other than film poster obtained through a Google image search; remaining images from Wikipedia

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les-miserables-dawnTom Hooper’s adaptation of “Les Misérables” ends with a re-gathering of all the characters — including those who have died — in some mysterious “new dawn” accompanied by the song “Do You Hear the People Sing?”

I have two things to say about this:

1) We notice that the song is reconfigured a bit from its performance earlier in the film, going from an anthem to an earthly utopia to a testament to man’s greater hope.

2) This moment is in some sense prefigured not only by the earlier performance of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” but also in the general use of music throughout the film.

We notice at various times that different characters in different physical locations are singing the same song, or else singing different songs with a very similar thematic structure…

lovers

…whether it is Marius and Cosette pining for one another…

rebels

…the rebels seeking a new order…

anne-hathaway-les-miserables

…Fantine weeping for her lost innocence…

Javert…Javert seeking justice…

Valjean_Prayer

…or Jean Valjean seeking redemption.

However different our circumstances in this world, however different our roles and goals, whatever our worldly destinies, and however different our paths through life, we are all ordered to the same destiny.  We are all meant to form the family of God eternally, to the crowning glory of the New Heavens and New Earth — or the summation of all things in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:10).

This is God’s desire for all humanity. It is for this reason that He sent His only Begotten Son to become a man, like us human beings in all things except sin, to bear our sins in His own body, to die for us, and to restore our life by His Resurrection.

There are none left out of this destiny except those who are excluded by their own choice, by their refusal of God’s call to repentance and conversion.  In the case of “Les Misérables,” this includes Javert (see my post “Act II, Scene 2/3” — https://intothedance.wordpress.com/2013/06/08/les-miserables-dvd-review-act-ii-scene-23-the-small-stuff/) and Monsieur and Madame Thénardier, the devious innkeeping couple who use poverty as an excuse for behavior that is inimical to community.

On that Final Day, we will know all we need to know.  We will finally see how and in what ways our actions, our sufferings, our prayers, and our very presence in this world affected others.  We will learn why some had to suffer more than others.  We will see the whole of history and creation fulfilled, its meaning disclosed.  Made to share by grace in the very life of God, we “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of (God the) Father” (Matthew 13:43).

Until then, we must strive to help one another reach this sublime destiny.  As C.S. Lewis wrote in his book “The Weight of Glory”:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.  All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.

Such is the song — the “dance,” if you will — of daily life.  So let us be people of hope, not despair; virtue, not vice; kindness, not cruelty; moderation, not self-indulgence; generosity, not possessiveness…

…Let us sing.

SUPPLEMENTAL VIDEO

In closing, here is a video that in some way bears witness to the higher hope I have touched on.  Most of you have probably already seen Minnesota teenager Zach Sobiech’s moving music video, which he made after learning that he had only months to live — nevertheless, here it is:

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les-miserables-picture04

The curtain opens on Paris in 1832, at which time the June Rebellion is underway.  “The People,” or representatives of the poor and downtrodden masses, are rising up against the French monarchy.

Any history buffs out there?  If so, does anything strike you as ironic about this?

Between the French Revolution of the earlier century and this time period, there had been a number of other such uprisings, all of which resulted in new monarchies and/or dictatorships that, at best, disappointed the hopes of the French people.

GavrocheWe are apprised of this in “Les Misérables” through the wisdom of a child — Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) by name.

Fighting on the side of the rebellion and reflecting on the People’s “victory” in France’s last great uprising (namely, the July Rebellion), he observes, “we tried to change the world too fast.”

Indeed, when we try to change things ourselves, on our own clock, when in our zeal we either presume to separate ourselves from our reliance on a Higher Power or assume that His will is 100% in conformity with our current temporal ends, then what we think is an accomplishment toward great change is just another case of egoistic self-assertion after the pattern of the Fall.

And what comes out of this?  Defensiveness.  Wall-building.  Denigration of the other.

June Revolution

What Gavroche doesn’t seem to realize is that the current rebellion poses the exact same problem.  The righteous indignation of the peasants against corrupt power structures is, in a sense, “ruined” by the mode of their rebellion.

Javert

In the rebellion by which they intend to “build a better world when tomorrow comes” and the oppressive monarchical side — embodied by the character Javert (Russell Crowe) — we have two self-defensive “egos” colliding.

It’s like a phenomenon we can observe any day in nature: When we strike two rocks against each other, flames are sparked.

Perhaps this is why, contrary to the expectation of the rebels, the people of Paris do not show up to help them on the day of battle.  Perhaps this is because they understand that it will not change anything, and in fact will probably just replace the old set of problems with a whole new set.

Yes, rebellion is sometimes necessary.  And yes, we should always do what we can to ensure that our societies respect the inviolable dignity of every human person.

But hope can be compromised when we try to do too much too quickly, when we invest too much hope in the idea of building the ideal society here and now…of relying on our own strength and zeal to reverse the sad condition of the world in which we live (as some of the revolutions of twentieth-century Europe have shown).

But enough of that.  What kind of actions do make a real difference, at least in “Les Misérables?”  We’ll get to that next time.

Images obtained through a Google image search

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TheatreIf it helps you, picture a bunch of stage hands switching things around in the dark.

From the counterproductivity of legalism we turn to an important question: How can we come to the defense of the sinner while at the same time condemning the sin?  The same question can be rephrased in reverse order: How can we express disapproval of the sin while behaving compassionately toward the sinner?

I think the answer lies in an understanding of what sin is and does.  Sin is like a prison.  It lures us with trappings of pleasure or satisfaction, and then when it gets a hold of us it binds us as with chains.

Jesus says as much:

Amen, amen, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin. (John 8:34)

Sin makes us less human.  It may feel good for a time — just as using drugs and alcohol is pleasurable to the addict or alcoholic — but ultimately it harms the very heart of the person who commits it.

anne-hathaway-les-miserablesWhile we do see something of this in Jean Valjean’s case, we see it more explicitly in the character of Fantine (Anne Hathaway).  She has been forced into prostitution in order to feed her child, and when she sings her song of lamentation, “I Dreamed a Dream,” it is perhaps the most moving and tragic scene in the film.

And how do people from the upper tiers of the social hierarchy and servants of the law treat her?  With pure contempt.

Javert 2In fact, at one point Javert almost has her arrested for striking a “gentleman” (an act of self-defense).  The idea that her action might have been justified, that perhaps the man she struck had been posing a threat to her, never occurs to him.  He knows nothing about her — only that she is a prostitute, and therefore not to be trusted.  In all likelihood, she was born bad.

To the extent that the law puts people down and obscures their dignity, it becomes a servant of sin rather than a safeguard against it (remember, the degradation of the human person is sin’s purpose and effect).  When we look down on people self-righteously, when we jump too quickly to judgment, what we end up doing is maintaining them in their sins (“They’ll never change”).

Don’t get me wrong — law is necessary and good.  Society’s judgments on legitimate wrongs are likewise good.  But in the words of Pope John Paul II,

Forgiveness … seeks to reintegrate individuals and groups into society, and countries into the community of nations.  No punishment should suppress the inalienable dignity of those who have committed evil.  The door to repentance and rehabilitation must always remain open.*

No such “door” is open to Fantine, and so she loses faith in a benevolent God.

Jackman_HathawayAt this point, Valjean intervenes.  Having reformed his life and worked his way up to the position of mayor of the town in which Fantine lives, he discovers her in the gutter and lifts her out.

Caught_in_Adultery

One cannot help but be reminded of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery.  As this woman is faced with the prospect of being stoned to death, Jesus says this to her captors:

Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her. (John 8:7)

Not to be redundant, but I do need to return to Blessed John Paul II, who comments on this passage in his Apostolic Letter “Mulieris Dignitatem”:

In the end Jesus says to her: “Do not sin again“, but first he evokes an awareness of sin in the men who accuse her (…) Jesus seems to say to the accusers: Is not this woman, for all her sin, above all a confirmation of your own transgressions, of your “male” injustice, your misdeeds? (italics his)

This seems to apply in Fantine’s case as well.  After all, for all Javert’s zeal for the enforcement of the law, does he ever give any hint of concern for the social conditions that contribute to the sins of folks living in the dregs of society? (It is worth noting that there is a reprise of “Look Down” in the mouths of peasants at one point in the film)

Unfortunately, Fantine dies shortly after Valjean’s intervention.  A life of abject poverty and prostitution has taken its toll on her.  But she dies knowing that she is loved, and therefore her hope in the triumph of truth, goodness, and beauty — and, we may suppose, God — is restored.

Cosette

She is also happy because she knows her daughter, Cosette, will be well cared for.  Valjean promises to see to that — in fact, he takes Cosette in and raises her himself.

Colm Wilkinson 2

Here, we see Valjean extending the “economy” of grace.  Having been shown mercy by the kindly old Bishop, he is inspired to live a life of grace, extending that mercy to others.

That’s the thing about the life of grace, which comes to us through Jesus Christ: It is a gift that is increased by being shared, the treasure that grows to the extent that it is given away.

What motivates this sort of “pay-it-forward” attitude for the Christian?  Gratitude, certainly.  But also, it gets us less focused on ourselves.  It neither permits us to indulge in sin nor maintains us in our guilt, but frees us to actualize our true selves.  And as I’ve said before, all human beings are made in the image of the Triune God, and so we only truly find ourselves when we make of our very selves a sincere gift to others.

Both sin and the pharisaical abuse of the law (itself a sin) get in the way of this.

*From the book “Go in Peace”

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Notice: Some spoilers here

“Les Misérables” opens with the song “Look Down,” which is significant. The forces in this world opposed to the Will of God would always prefer to keep human beings looking down rather than up — that is, rather than looking toward hope. There are many ways of doing this, but in some way or other they all involve the wounding of the dignity that belongs to human beings.

Jean_ValjeanAs the film opens, we meet Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), who has been serving 19 years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread in order to feed his sister’s starving child.

Valjean is finally paroled after nearly two decades, but he is a marked man. He must carry his convict’s papers with him wherever he goes so that everyone knows he is a “dangerous man.”

His first foray back into freedom takes him from town to town, and he is met wherever he goes with nothing but contempt — even to the point of being physically assaulted.

JavertOn top of that, he is being relentlessly pursued by Javert (Russell Crowe), the Constable who is determined to put Valjean back behind bars…even years later, when he has reformed his life.

Before we go further, we must realize that the crime for which Valjean was imprisoned is not only understandable, but fully justifiable.  In fact, his action was in total accord with Catholic social teaching, which states that whenever there is a question of obtaining basic necessities such as food and drink, and there is no other means of doing so, one has a right to take from the abundance of another.  Why?  Because, in fact, the person in question has a right to this necessity in justice.

After his release, Valjean’s situation reverses. He has been embittered and hardened by the institutional and societal injustice he has suffered, and this leads him to do something that is actually wrong.

Colm WilkinsonHe is taken in one night by a kindly old Bishop (Colm Wilkinson), and then at night he steals valuable items from him and escapes.  The next day, he is caught and dragged back to the Bishop by police officers.

Then what happens?  The Bishop denounces him, right?

On the contrary, he tells the police officers that these stolen items were, in fact, gifts from him to Valjean.  Not only that, he then declares that the only mistake Valjean made was forgetting to take two beautiful candles, which he immediately bequeaths to him.

Colm Wilkinson 2Valjean is not only “off the hook,” but now has a variety of valuable goods at his disposal.  The Bishop sends him on his way, but informs him that he must use these gifts for his own genuine good, for the bettering of himself as a man.

hugh-jackman-les-miserables1Now, contrast Valjean’s response to the Javert style of justice (already noted above) with his response to the Bishop’s utterly gratuitous act of generosity.  Valjean is a changed man.  The rest of the film follows him as he “pays it forward” with remarkable acts of charity toward others.

My point in recounting these plot points is to illustrate an important principle: The law, while good and necessary in itself, must never defeat its own purpose.  To the extent that it puts people down, it loses its way and becomes mere legalism.

When legalism is privileged over more humane approaches, as we can see, it proves to be counterproductive.  I’ll talk more about that in relation to the characters of “Les Misérables” within the next several days.

Top photo from Wikipedia; others obtained through a Google image search

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