A quietly powerful Breathe In offers viewers relationship depth

By Alynda Wheat PEOPLE Movie Critic
March 28, 2014 03:10 PM
Niko Tavernise

Russell Crowe is back in force as he puts himself up for Biblical scrutiny this weekend, helming an epic if not cruel film depiction of the Old Testament hero Noah, who packs up his Ark to save not only the critters, but humanity.

Does this latest big-screen version hold water? Or will it pack plenty of controversy? Plus another hero takes on human rights and labor’s inhumanity in the new biopic Cesar Chavez.

Here’s what to see and what to skip in theaters this weekend.

Comprising a mere handful of chapters, the story of Noah may be one of the most recognizable from the Bible, but it’s also one of the sparest, with scant details about cubits, beasts and an incomprehensible tempest. That leaves a mind as fertile as director Darren Aronofsky’s plenty of room to roam, filling in details about God’s chosen survivor in a mightily ambitious, often gripping film adaptation that may not always work onscreen, but one that stays technically faithful to biblical text. That said, if you’re spoiling for a theological fight, Noah will give it to you.

This Noah isn’t the easy hero of Sunday school lessons. He’s obsessive bordering on psychotic with a willingness to inflict cruelty that will stun most viewers. And this is the guy God – or The Creator, as the film calls him – chooses to save. That should give you some idea of how miserably far the rest of mankind has fallen in the few generations between Adam and Noah. Noah (Crowe), his wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and their three boys live apart from men, who’ve grown wicked, destroying the cities and befouling the land. While men hunt for meat, Noah and his kin are practically vegan, seeing themselves as caretakers of the animals. It is for their sake that he is to build the Ark, revealed to him by The Creator in a dream. Man is to be but a memory, Earth is to be left to the flora and fauna.

It is with this mission in mind that Noah becomes monomaniacal, evolving from a gentle father into the picture of ruthlessness, carrying out God’s message with ferocious intensity. Crowe capably wrestles with the awesomeness of the task, not just how one goes about building such a vessel, but the guilt and hubris that naturally come with being God’s bouncer. It’s a stance that will put him in a direct, violent confrontation with the local king, Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), as well as with his own family. After all, eldest son Shem (Douglas Booth) has a partner in Ila (Emma Watson), an orphan adopted by Noah and Naameh. But whom are sons Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll) supposed to end up with when everyone else on Earth is dead?

It’s the way Aronofsky tackles these questions that may anger some who hold dear certain Judeo-Christian beliefs. Noah has a decidedly pro-environmental bent, one that firmly rejects the argument (espoused by Tubal-cain) that having “dominion” over the Earth means being able to do with it what one wants. There’s also the tricky notion of what it means to be called by The Creator. Is Noah really supposed to be so cruel in seeing through His vision? When push comes to shove, Noah will do both – and far worse – to carry out the mission, but is that right? His family certainly doesn’t think so. Speaking of whom, I don’t even want to get into how the film solves the problem of having two sons with no wives. That little situation won’t sit comfortably with anybody.

But if you’re seeing the film because you’re an Aronofsky fan, or frankly, just want to get a load of the spectacle, you’re unlikely to be disappointed. This Earth is a visual patchwork of barren Icelandic landscape, medieval-style villages and creatures that look borrowed from a Lord of the Rings set. The Watchers, fallen angels mentioned in the Bible, are giants made of light and rock, who look silly for a moment before becoming an accepted part of this world. And then there’s the Ark, which Aronofsky actually built, a massive wooden structure that becomes a stronghold when Tubal-cain and his followers lay siege in a mighty battle. This is the stuff of a big-budget epic, and for the most part, it’s impressive. Still, I’m willing to bet it’s not what you’ll take home with you, as the film leaves viewers to wrestle, like Noah, with difficult concepts. While that may discomfit some of the faithful, it’s not an inherently bad thing.

Breathe In
Lord knows there are plenty of ways to tackle the older man/younger woman plot, but Breathe In does it with refreshing honesty and subtlety. Musician Keith (Guy Pearce) and his wife, Megan (Amy Ryan) seem like a happy enough couple. They have a quiet life in New York and dote on their teen daughter, Lauren (Mackenzie Davis). But under the surface tension roils. They make little digs at each other, swipes at the life they lead. That all comes to a head when exchange student Sophie (Felicity Jones) arrives.

Sophie isn’t merely beautiful, she’s also an incredibly accomplished pianist and more contemplative than most of her peers. She certainly doesn’t need the social validation Lauren craves at school. Instead, Sophie finds more in common with Keith. Breathe In builds their attraction not in hurried tumbles and feverish embraces, but in tiny shifts of mood. Seemingly banal conversations come freighted with meaning, glances become as passionate as kisses – and just as dangerous. One of the film’s strengths is that it never shies away from the inevitable pain involved in such an entanglement, even as the delicate performances keep even the most intense moments from becoming histrionic. It’s a quietly powerful film.

Cesar Chavez
The civil rights crusader and champion of migrant workers finally gets his own biopic, courtesy of actor/director Diego Luna. Michael Peña stars as Cesar, just as he arrives in California’s Central Valley region to find an entire class of workers living in abject poverty. With the help of his wife, Helen (America Ferrera) and fellow activist Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson), Cesar battles wealthy farm owners (including John Malkovich as the Machiavellian grape grower Bogdanovich) for better treatment for the workers.

Luna gets fine performances from his cast, particularly Ferrera, as Helen has to play mother and father at home, while her husband is out pursuing their joint cause. But I can’t help but wish the director had given us more of Cesar as a person. The film limits itself to this momentous but narrow slice of Chavez’s life, focusing almost exclusively on the struggle, with the exception of a few affecting scenes between Cesar and his kids, desperate for their father’s attention. Still, as it stands, the biopic does Chavez proud, even if it could use a little more heart.