Kabbalah & Film (Pi) (More Darren Aronofsky)


No Kabbalah without computers. And no computers without Kabbalah. Having gone to see Noah, I dutifully followed up with Pi, which I streamed on Netflix. Pi is Aronofsky’s surprise breakout film, which I saw when it first came out. It’s an “immature” work, but actually better than the bigger biblical blockbuster. Aesthetically consistent and uncompromised, the film races after its protagonist, Max Cohen, through and into black and white gritty streetscapes and chaotic claustrophobic New York Chinatown interiors. The Lower East Side circa 1997 is played as place of revelation.

Against his mother’s express command, Poor Max looked directly into the sun as a child, and now his entire mental life is permeated by numbers. The media of Pi are streaming consciousness, numbers, low high-tech systems, stock market figures, scenes shot from nature, computers, drugs, ants, letters, everything speeding up and in pain . Mathematics, Kabbalah, and the game Go center the universe. Without hiatus, Max thinks too much too fast looking for the patterns that will make sense of everything.

At last the 216 number name of God is revealed to Max by a computer program. Chased down by Wall Street agents and kabbalists, they all the want the name uttered by the High Priest on Yom Kippur in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem. Is it the messiah’s key to the Garden of Eden or just a number. The true name, Max learns, is between the numbers, not for us. He burns the printout paper with the name of God on it, and drills the computer chip that contains the program out of his head. The film ends with the release of a vision of wind blowing through trees in a downtown city park. It’s the tree of life in Chinatown. In the end, the entire manic operation is given up for a quiet vision with more balance.

I’m always interested in how religion gets played in film and in popular culture, and then how it gets reviewed by the professional critics. What do they get about religion? What do the miss? Here is Pi as presented by Stephen Holden in the NYT. “[W]ith its ink-stained cinematography and jarring electronic score by Clint Mansell, ”Pi” can be extremely grating.” Grating indeed, but so is Kabbalah. I like the way kabbalah and revelation are set into and intensified visually and sonically by the techno frame of the contemporary world. If, on the downside, Pi is an immature work, even silly and definitely overblown, on the upside, it looks like a comic strip, a gonzo comic strip about Kabbalah and spirituality, as if drawn by Eli Valley. Looked at that way, it’s a great looking film.


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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3 Responses to Kabbalah & Film (Pi) (More Darren Aronofsky)

  1. dmf says:

    the story was lacking but I thought the mood was compelling, reminded me Shalom Auslander’s paranoid tales of signs, fear, and trembling, and also seems to have caught some of what we can imagine in the recent Wall St. crash. have you ever read Richard Rorty’s review essay of Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum The Pragmatist’s Progress?

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