SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. This week, Russell Crowe received a blessing from Pope Francis. Mr. Crowe plays the title role in the new film "Noah." But the cinematic Noah didn't receive a personal audience with the pope or a promise that the pontiff would see the film. Well, the pope's probably read the book.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM MONTAGE, "NOAH”)
RUSSELL CROWE: (As Noah) A great flood is coming...the storm cannot be stopped, but it can be survived...we have to protect our family...and save the innocent.
SIMON: "Noah" opens in this country next week. It has already been banned in several Muslim countries for portraying a man considered a prophet, and stirred controversy among some Christians here in this country for not being a literal-enough telling of the Bible story. So we're joined now by Rajinder Dudrah, senior lecturer in screen studies at the University of Manchester, in Great Britain. He joins us from the BBC studios in Birmingham. Rajinder, thanks for being back with us.
RAJINDER DUDRAH: Thank you very much for having me.
SIMON: Rajinder, the website for the film "Noah" has a line that reads: While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. What do you make of that?
DUDRAH: I think that's partly because the film, as I understand it, was shown in various part of the USA, and it received a mixed response, or a lukewarm response - and not least because of the controversy that it's already courted, you know, prior to its international release, where certain countries have already banned it. I think this is partly, then, kind of second-guessing, well, if we get any lawsuits we can refer to this; that actually, we have made a creative adaptation or a creative interpretation of a text or a range of text. So I think this is them signposting that, you know, theirs is not the definitive version of "Noah," either.
SIMON: "The Passion of the Christ," the Mel Gibson film in 2004, was controversial, also. But it made a ton of money, didn't it? I believe I read the other day, it was the - it is still the single-largest-grossing, non-English-speaking film.
DUDRAH: Oh, absolutely. I think whenever you cast a religious figure, you know, this kind of pricks up the eyes and ears of, one, a potential viewing audience, whether that's domestic or international. And with a figure like Christ or Noah, this has followings not just because of Judeo-Christianity, but also the Abrahamic faiths, Muslim faiths. So it potentially has an international audience.
And then also, when there's any controversy around this figure - you know, whether was this figure real; to what extent; which interpretation of the religious text have they taken up - then of course, this arouses a certain kind of interest. And if that interest then features - into controversy, and if the censorship word comes in, if certain countries start banning it, then that in itself will arouse a little bit of interest, maybe even suspicion; and people will walk through the theater doors, which perhaps they thought oh, maybe not.
SIMON: What is there about depicting actual religious figures that sometimes causes offense to people? I'm speaking now maybe of Christian communities in the West, because, of course, George Burns and Morgan Freeman have each played God.
DUDRAH: Yes, they have, haven't they? And also, we've had people like Charlton Heston, who's previously played Moses, you know, in the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille's - the classic film. And I often turn to that again and again. I've actually used it in my lectures as a piece of spectacle but also, how does one depict a godlike figure or revered figure on screen? And I think the issue there is one of interpretation. It's which version of the religious text does one turn to? Or is this really more a kind of an artistic interpretation which the scriptwriter, the directors in collaboration, in conversation with each other, and then the actors and actresses then, who then interpret or reinterpret that role.
SIMON: It sounds like you kind of liked Charlton Heston as Moses.
DUDRAH: Oh. You know, for me, he really had that screen persona. And I think this is also really relevant to why we go and watch these religious figures on screen. Charlton Heston was wonderful in the sense that, you know, he was that dashing, heroic figure in the early part of the film. And there was something about his stature, the way he stood, which really gave this sense of a kind of divine presence.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE TEN COMMANDMENTS")
CHARLTON HESTON: (As Moses) For this, you shall drink bitter waters. God has set before you this day his laws of life and good and death and evil.
DUDRAH: An actor who is able to transcend the human and suggest the possibility of divinity or at least semidivinity, I think we as an audience build our affinity with that actor and character, too.
SIMON: Rajinder, how have these things been treated in India? Because there, of course, is in Bollywood films, because that's a society that can be fraught with religious rivalry, after all.
DUDRAH: It can be. But Bollywood film, you know, is perhaps one of the more plural areas of representation. That's not to say it's not been without its controversy. Most recently, we had Akshay Kumar playing Krishna in "Oh My God," and that was received - and that was almost like a critique on religious authority figures, where the Krishna figure has to come down and make some sort of intervention, and a critique on that.
It raised a few eyebrows but actually, people went and watched it, enjoyed it, you know, laughed along with it and also, you know, made criticism about it. And I think when that happens, that's a good sign - or a healthy sign of cinema being able to engage in those kinds of debates.
SIMON: Rajinder Dudrah. He's coauthor of "The 1970s and Its Legacies in India Cinemas"; also, a senior lecturer of screen studies at Manchester University. Thanks so much.
DUDRAH: Thank you.
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