Darren Aronofsky’s latest film Mother! has certainly stirred up a storm, and no wonder. It features murder, point-blank executions, incinerations, and the killing and devouring of a child. I know: pleasant evening at the movies. Mother! will seem just deeply weird unless you see it as a fairly straightforward allegory. Once you crack the code, it will make a certain sense, though the message it is trying to convey is, at best, pretty ambiguous.
The film opens with a couple, played by Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem, living in isolation and security, in a beautiful country home that they are in the process of renovating. There seems to be a symbiotic connection between the Lawrence character and the house itself: pressing her hands against a wall, she senses the presence of a beating heart within. Their bucolic serenity is suddenly interrupted by the arrival of another couple—played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer—who are seeking a place to stay. Though Bardem’s character is more than open to their staying, his wife is deeply suspicious. In time, the intruding pair become more and more disturbing and annoying, upsetting the rhythm and peace of the house. Then, to the infinite surprise of Lawrence’s character, their two grown sons arrive and commence immediately to quarrel. In short order, their fight turns murderous, as the older brother kills the younger. In his angst, the murderer cuts himself on the forehead with a shard of glass and staggers away from the house. Filled with sympathy, Bardem’s character invites friends and family of the troubled couple to come to the home and mourn. Quickly, things turn chaotic, as more and more people invade the private rooms of the house. The husband finally loses patience when the original visitors break a precious heirloom in his room, and, in a thundering voice, he expels them from the place.
So the allegory is fairly clear: Bardem’s character is the God of the Old Testament, his wife (and by extension the house) is mother nature, the mysterious visitors are Adam and Eve, and their warring sons are Cain (who bears a mark on his forehead) and Abel. The message—at this point, Biblical enough—seems to be that sin has produced not only a conflict among human beings, but also a conflict between human beings and the natural world. In their selfishness and violence, sinful people indeed ride roughshod over nature, ruining her beauty and offending her integrity.
After the intruders have all been dismissed from the house, a period of peace prevails. Lawrence’s character becomes pregnant and Bardem’s character finds his muse and recommences his writing career. As the child gestates in his mother’s womb, a work of literature emerges through the energies of the father. When the book is finished, it is met with immediate and universal acclaim. Soon, armies of admirers descend upon the lovely house, once again muddying it, then doing damage to it. They want to commune with the author, to take a piece of his life home with them, and in the process they overwhelm the place that he and his wife have striven to restore. They cover the walls with images of their hero; they chant and mark themselves in ritual ceremonies. They eventually come in such numbers and with such fervor that conflicts break out, and these escalate into outright war. All hell then breaks loose: gunshots, missile attacks, fires, executions. Though the woman shrieks in horror, Bardem’s character only revels in the attention he is receiving.
If the first part of the story allegorizes the Old Testament, this second part allegorizes the New. The husband emerges here as a sort of Christ-figure, and his devotees are exhibiting all of the fanaticism, conflict, and violence that have sometimes dogged Christianity across the ages. Then things get truly weird. During a lull in the chaos, the woman gives birth to a beautiful baby boy, and she holds him tight, refusing to allow his father even to hold him. But while she sleeps, the Bardem character steals the child and shows him to the crowds who then take him, kill him, rip him to pieces, and proceed to eat his body. Beside herself with rage, the mother retreats to the basement and sets off an explosion that brings the whole place down.
The filmmaker seems to be gesturing toward the sacrificial death of Jesus and the sacrament of the Eucharist. Now if the Old Testament associations were at least in the ballpark, these are just off the farm. First, the true God does not need the adulation of his followers and does not remain indifferent to their moral outrages. Moreover, Jesus is not taken and sacrificed by the people in the manner of a pagan offering; rather, he gives himself away as a free act of love. Finally, the dying and rising of Jesus is construed by the New Testament as not simply beneficial to human beings, but indeed as the salvation of nature itself, as a healing of the wounds of creation. Thus to set the Bardem character and the sacrificed child over and against the good of mother earth is just not Biblical.
Though it rather clearly reflects the anti-Scriptural prejudice of the cultural elite today, Mother! might actually serve to prompt a re-examination of the deeply ecological themes that run right through the Biblical narrative and the great theological tradition. The God of the Bible does indeed love the human race and does indeed act as an indulgent father in the face of humanity’s sins. But at the same time, the God of the Bible loves mother earth. As the book of Genesis tells us with an almost obsessive insistence, he found everything he had made—from the stars and planets to the animals and insects that creep upon the earth—very good. In the minds of the authors of the Scriptures, there is no tension between these two great loves.
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.