What do Darren Aronofsky’s recent film mother! and the Catholic Church have in common?
They’re both really weird.
The movie is a unique and disturbing interpretation of the story of God’s relationship with humanity. Aronfsky’s symbolism is obvious:
- Javier Bardem is God, the poet who creatively authors a two-part epic in which he plays the leading role.
- Jennifer Lawrence is a fusion of Mother Earth and the Virgin Mary. She’s Mother Earth in her role as the caretaker of the home, a symbol of the universe. She’s Mary in her role as the mother of the child that Bardem and humanity sacrifice near the end of the poet’s New Testament.
- Ed Harris is Adam, the first man to enter the house, the universe.
- Michelle Pfeiffer is Eve, the wife of Adam and the mother of two sons, Cain and Abel (played by Domhnall and Brian Gleeson).
The tale that connects them is mysterious and epic, occasionally beautiful and often creepy.
So apart from the biblical characters, what makes the movie weird and Catholic? I’ll give you three reasons:
Humanity kills Jennifer Lawrence’s son. Subsequently, Javier Bardem’s followers begin to eat his flesh. It’s not a pretty picture, but it is a clear reference to the Catholic Sacrament of the Eucharist. After all, we do claim that our most sacred ritual is a meal of Jesus’ flesh and blood.
The people that Bardem has created are prone to horrible wickedness. They are so evil that one wonders why he made them in the first place. They kill each other, and, finally, they kill his own son. Nevertheless, Bardem forgives them without blinking twice. His mercy is loco generous. The Church recounts the same story throughout the Bible’s history of salvation. Adam and Eve tragically sin, and one of their sons kills the other. Humanity is poisoned from the get-go, but God sends his own son to love them–even though he knows that they will murder him. This love is mind-boggling, even scandalous.
Bardem’s disciples mark each other’s foreheads with a strange substance. If you go to church for Ash Wednesday or Confirmation, you’ll see the same. They light hundreds of candles in dark spaces. If you visit a Catholic shrine, you’ll see the same. They pray in front of an image of Bardem himself. If you look at a Catholic icon of Jesus, you’ll see the same.
These similarities are uncanny. Aronofsky is clearly hoping to make a point about Catholicism–perhaps religion in general–and it’s undoubtedly a negative one. The movie comes off at best sacrilegious and at worst militantly atheistic, mostly because the God played by Bardem is a total psychopath. Like an egomaniac, he takes extreme delight in humanity’s praise, and he refuses to intervene as the universe goes up in flames. In an article and video, Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles has responded to the movie’s solemn critique of God. He is right to point out that the Christian God is in no need of humanity’s praise, being perfectly happy in himself as a community of three divine persons.
I would add to Barron’s critique by highlighting the film’s bait-and-switch concerning the relationship between God and his son. In the film Bardem hands his child over to the world for sacrifice as if he is completely separate and emotionally detached from his son. This detail makes all the difference in the world. It makes God seem cruel and cold. Who would smilingly give his kid to murderers?
Essentially, in mother! God is the torturer, the reason for evil in the world. However, in Christian teaching, God is the son, and this God-man himself enters the world for its salvation. He is not indifferent to the world’s suffering; rather, he becomes one of us to personally show us the path to peace and justice. In Christianity, humanity is the torturer of itself as a free agent capable of choosing good and evil. This distinction may seem a bit nuanced, but it’s simply high school level theology with which Aronofsky seems wildly unfamiliar.
Regardless of the movie’s theological error, it is a must-see. It restores to its proper place the most interesting–and strange–questions about the universe. In a world that is increasingly indifferent to religion, Aronofsky’s movie is like a slap across the face that says, “Wake up! There’s something serious at stake here.” In a generation of “nones” and “mehs,” mother! puts the viewer face to face with the primordial, stunning, and eerie truth: “If God exists, then everything changes.”
Granted, Aronofsky’s message is closer to, “If God exists, then everything is a nightmare,” but it’s a start. The movie gets an A+ in art but an F if we’re talking accuracy in a eighth grade religion class. But in terms of connecting the weirdness that links the two, it’s a start.
Aronovsky and I can disagree on the details.
The cover photo is featured courtesy of Jennifer Lawrence Films of the Flickr Creative Commons.