Decoding the Biblical Narrative of Mother!
As I left the theater Friday night after the showing of Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, an older woman turned to me, looking as baffled as I was, and said, “Well, we got through it.” It was an understandable sentiment. The movie is bizarre and overwrought and disturbing. It makes no attempt to explain itself. Aronofsky puts a lot of faith in the audience to put in the effort to decode it. I suspect there will be two types of viewers of this film: those who leave the theater confused and kind of peeved and write the movie off as a forgettable romp in narcissistic arthouse theater; and those who become infected by the film’s sheer mystery.
If I’m being totally honest, I must say that I pretty much gave up on decoding Mother! a few hours after seeing it. I suspected it was saying something about the life of the artist and its inherent selfishness, but my interpretation was murky at best. And then, as luck would have it, as I laid down to sleep, it hit me, seemingly at once: the whole film is an incredibly compressed retelling of the Bible. Or, at the very least, its action mirrors that of the Bible.
What follows is a rough attempt to break down how key scenes in Mother! reflect stories of the Bible, which hopefully will help foster a greater understanding of the movie’s central themes of creation, destruction, neglect, and obsession.
As you could have guessed, Javier Bardem’s character represents God, although he is far from benevolent. In my opinion, Jennifer Lawrence’s character represents a kind of Mother Nature figure. She is the one working on the house, which symbolically represents the earth, and she loves her work. She is the one creating the physical beauty of the world, and she wants the chance to enjoy it. But before she gets a chance, a stranger (Ed Harris) enters her world. This stranger is Adam, the first man. Bardem welcomes Adam into his home, who turns out to be a huge fan of Bardem’s poetry—in fact, Adam nearly worships him. Bardem gives Adam a tour of his office, where he shows Adam his weird glowing crystal. Adam is drawn to it and reaches to touch it, but Bardem forbids him to (forbid being the operative word here if you catch my meaning). That night Mother finds Bardem comforting Adam as he vomits into the toilet. She catches a brief glimpse of a wound on his rib cage which Bardem quickly covers with his hand. The next day, Eve arrives, having been fashioned out of Adam’s rib during the night.
Now there’s that scene with the toilet. Mother discovers a strange, um, organism hanging out in it that quickly vanishes down the drain. I cannot say with any certainty, but I believe this creature might be the serpent that tempts Eve. We don’t see it again, so the temptation itself must take place offscreen, but nonetheless, this scene is an unsettling hint at the corruption to come. Soon after, Adam and Eve are found in Bardem’s office, where they have touched and shattered his glowing crystal. Bardem with all the fury of the Old-Testament God banishes them from the office and boards it up, just as God banishes Adam and Eve from Eden and hides the Tree of Life. By the way, the Tree of Life in the Bible is the source of eternal life; in Mother! the crystal is what allows Bardem to reset time and seemingly live forever.
Enter Cain and Abel, who quickly play out their murder scene, but with a doorknob as the weapon of choice instead of a rock. I believe it is after this scene (but a re-watch is required to validate this) that we first see the “heart of the house” show signs of corruption. The fall of Adam and Eve along with this first act of violence pave the way for the film’s staggering and increasingly fanatic third act. I’d say it begins during the wake sequence after the sink falls apart and water rains down from the heavens—excuse me, I mean sprays out from the pipes—resulting in a Great Flood that finally gets Bardem to kick his unruly houseguests out.
Then Mother gets pregnant and Bardem publishes a best-selling book of verse. The press shows up at his house, along with pretty much the rest of the world, and all hell gradually breaks loose. The guests worship Bardem and greedily grab whatever they can find of his to worship as, you guessed it, idols. Sin wreaks havoc and the house goes full-on Sodom. The imagery that follows is so densely packed that I can’t pretend to have caught it all, but I imagine all sorts of Biblical allusions find their way into the scene.
Mother is on the verge of giving birth and Bardem helps her find a quiet place to do so. The guests send in gifts, and while there aren’t any stand-ins for the three kings, you get the picture: its Jesus, folks. Bardem’s first thought is that he must show his followers his son, and when he does, they hastily devour him. After witnessing this, Bardem comes to a very Christ-like conclusion: “His death must not have been for nothing,” he tells Mother. “We must forgive them.” This he says, by the way, while his followers are still chewing on his newborn baby’s flesh. Communion anyone?
Finally, Mother cracks and sets the house ablaze in a giant ball of fire, not unlike the kind God rains down on Sodom in the OT. An unscathed Bardem walks out of the ashes holding a well-burnt but still breathing Mother, rips her heart out of her chest, and uncovers a new glowing crystal inside, which he uses to reset time to live out the events again but with a brand-new Mother.
That’s, at least, how the plot mirrors the Bible. I didn’t touch on what these parallels do for the film’s thematic material, but I’m too exhausted to delve into that right now. In short, Aronofsky tells the untold story of the neglected Mother behind creation, which is also the story of the neglected muse behind the artist. That’s a whole different post, though, and hopefully, I’ll get to it soon.