By the time the end credits roll on Darren Aronofosky’s new film, mother!, you sit speechless in your seat, nearly paralyzed, by what you just experienced.
And there is no more appropriate word to describe this film than experience. Make no mistake, this is not a fun film. Hell, it’s not even enjoyable. Yet in all its chaotic meaning, mother! brutally significant.
mother! is a film that puts religious metaphor and allegory into vivid imagery. While Aronofosky’s previous film, Noah, brought to life a famous tale that portrayed the existentially trying nature of faith, mother! seems to be deeply personal to Aronofosky. As a friend of mine put it, mother! is Aronofosky’s “view of God.”
And it isn’t a pleasant image.
There is so much to unpack about this film. A whole treatise should be written by feminists on this film and its exquisite portrayal of the suffocating nature of traditional gender roles. You could unpack this film, nearly scene by scene, for its depiction of biblical stories and Christian doctrine, from the tale of Adam and Eve all the way through the Eucharist. Aronofosky is not a friend to any of it. It seems to disgust him entirely. The way he wrote Javier Bardem’s “Him” (God), is unflattering. God is a self-interested, possessive being who only takes from what his follower’s offer.
Yet there is a whole other element to this film, specifically what it speaks of humanity in general, and religious communities in particular. Greed is one of the proverbial seven “deadly sins” and in mother! it is the pinnacle of human plight. Greed’s hyperbolic representation in the film makes the viewer uncomfortable for the entire two-hour duration. Yet like all hyperbole, the reaction it invokes is all too real. It smacks us to realize our participation in what is being shown.
The characters representing the biblical Adam (Ed Harris) & Eve (Michelle Pfeiffer) carry on the theological application of the Genesis account that those characters are not to blame for our sins. Rather, their story informs us of what can occur in our lives when greed sits firmly in the driver’s seat. These characters march into Him and Mother’s (Jennifer Lawrence’s) home. While Him, who is Aronofosky’s interpretation of God, welcomes them in without question, Mother, the home’s caretaker, is consistently ignored, berated, shamed, and at times abused.
Mother gives, and gives some more. She gives until she has nothing more to give (trying to avoid spoilers, here). Her guests demand more space. They mock her purity. They dirty and destroy all that she has worked for.
There’s far too much of this film to be unpacked. The more I reflect on this film with the friends I saw this film with, the more there is to discuss. But there was something existentially familiar in the first third of this film that left me far too unsettled. It was almost unbearable. In all of the actions that took advantage of Mother’s home and generosity, in all that she tried to give, it never seemed to be enough.
It was all too familiar to my life growing up in a pastor’s home. I saw my dad, the local pastor, and my mom, his loving and faithful wife, give up their time, their energy, their home. While there was alway time made for the family, there was countless sacrifice made for the church and its people who always wanted more. There were times I came home from school and there were church people there. At other times dad was gone well into the evening trying to appease unsatisfied board members. It was exhausting. And it was never enough.
My family is fortunate enough to not only have survived, but came out stronger on the other end of those difficult years. But I never quite realized just how much some of that lost time and energy still had on me. I sat in the theater wanting the film to be over a mere 30 minutes in. And it’s because it was just too much. It took me back to all those years ago where giving was only met with the request to give more, regardless of how dehumanizing it was to those who simply wanted to serve.
Aronofosky made the darkness of religious life real. The parts of Christian ministry that the Church does not want discussed were put on the big screen in a way that I’ve never seen before. And Aronofosky’s negative portrayal of God and religious isn’t wrong. To the contrary, it’s similarity is damning. Contemporary western Christianity only has itself to blame for portrayals such as the one in mother!. Religious piety is ugly. It’s greedy. And it makes a loving God look vengeful. And to that degree mother! is an essential film for religious people. Aronofosky is a dark saint for bringing telling our theology back to us.