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The overlooked symbolism of 'mother!'

film review

<p>Darren Aronofksy's latest film 'mother!' has met with polarized reactions despite its dense symbolism.</p>

Darren Aronofksy's latest film 'mother!' has met with polarized reactions despite its dense symbolism.

Note: The following review contains spoilers of the film 'mother!'

Despite polarized reviews from audiences and critics alike, Darren Aronofsky's “mother!” is one of the best films of the year. Perhaps the negative reaction can be attributed to a widespread confusion about the film’s message. 

Few movies are as vividly and meticulously rendered as “mother!”— indeed, almost nothing in “mother!” feels gratuitous or incidental. Every sound, every image, every symbol seems significant. Aronofsky, whose previous films have been intentional with sound editing, expertly employs sound — specifically accentuating the sounds of an old house creaking and the movement of air within it — in his newest film to create suspense, one of the few traits that defines “mother!” as a so-called “thriller.”

Aronofsky and Jennifer Lawrence, whose character represents Mother Nature in the film, have alluded to the fact that the movie is a metaphor for environmental destruction through a Biblical lens. Javier Bardem plays the creator, Him, with Michelle Pfeiffer as Eve to Ed Harris’s Adam. If you are aware of this fact, the movie is a cinematic achievement filled with intention. At the very least, reimagining the relationship between Mother Nature and God as a fragile marriage between a man and woman is ingenious. 

But for most viewers, this metaphor was either insufficient or absent altogether. Only when the end credits roll does it become truly clear that Bardem’s character is meant to represent the Christian deity. Although all other words in the credits remain uncapitalized — even the names of characters — Javier Bardem’s character is noticeably named “Him.” However, even if you could not view Aronofsky’s film through the lens he intended, you can still observe a strong message. Contrary to what many critics have claimed, this message is not about fame.

We are predisposed to focus on the film’s male lead and to assume that his motivations and actions are the most significant, causing us to derive the film’s message from his behavior. This may be why many reviews call the film a satire on fame and criticize Aronofsky for his self-obsession. But this interpretation overlooks the fact that the movie is named after the female lead, that most of its marketing focuses on Lawrence and that she has the most screentime. 

In its purest form, Aronofsky’s 7th feature film is about destruction — specifically, the slow and painful destruction of a woman. The viewer doesn’t need to understand what the woman stands for to feel her pain. 

Aronofsky gradually takes away everything this woman holds dear in his psychological thriller. Throughout that grueling process, the woman doggedly tries to support and nurture that which she loves — her husband, her house and the baby growing inside her — despite everyone and everything getting in her way. She is a force of nature, expertly played by Lawrence, whose vulnerability and frustration effectively make the viewer feel compassion for her.

One of her most prized possessions is her house, which was destroyed in a fire before she could live in it. It would be easy to assume that the film emphasizes the importance of the house because it’s the childhood home of Bardem’s character, or that the reason the mother restoring the house is for him. 

However, the true significance of the house lies in the mother’s relationship with it. It is clear that there are parallels between the well-being of the house and that of the mother, although it is not initially clear why this is the case. Aronofsky is not subtle about how important the house is to the mother, and yet many reviews of the film have left out any mention of it because they’re so focused on Bardem’s character.

This isn’t to say that Bardem does not play a significant role in the film. Many of the conflicts in this film occur in the first place because of Bardem’s character’s occupation. As he is a famous author, many people come to visit him throughout the film; however, these visitors are seemingly intent on destroying the house and robbing it of its contents. In these scenes, the mother becomes exhausted from looking after everyone and trying to keep her home intact. Yet her husband refuses to make them leave, ignoring her needs—an all too familiar scene as many of us ignore our own mothers and take them for granted.

In the final, painstakingly nightmarish sequence, Aronofsky gradually escalates the chaos taking place in the house and crowds of strangers surge inside, demanding attention from Bardem’s character. The mother is pregnant with his child and there is too much commotion for her to deliver her baby; she begs him to make the crowds leave. Again ignoring her request, he somehow is able to take her to his empty study, where she delivers the baby. 

At this point, her house is destroyed and it’s clear to her she is the only one looking out for the child’s interests. She fights to prevent her husband from taking her child, but her weakened state compels her to momentarily close her eyes. Seconds later, we see that her child has been ripped from her arms by Bardem, in a moment filled with suspense and horror, demonstrating Aronofsky’s powerful direction. 

Bardem’s character holds the baby up while his fans cry in practical worship. They take the baby from him, another moment saturated with horror, and the mother chases after her newborn through the crowd. She screams and yells for her child, to no avail. Then, we hear a loud crack. 

The crowd has accidentally killed the baby, and because they are so obsessed with the desire to “consume” Bardem’s character’s belongings, they proceed to literally tear the infant apart and eat it. It’s shocking imagery, but it’s not gratuitous. It is at that moment that we truly feel the mother’s immense shock and rage, and understand her eventual decision to light her house on fire. Bardem’s character, God, survives and he is able to start anew. 

The movie starts with an image of woman engulfed in flames, a single solitary tear escaping her eye. This image repeats itself at the end of the film, representing the profound sacrifices she has made throughout her life, once again, not unlike those made by our own mothers or mother earth.

Likhitha Butchireddygari

Follow Likhitha on Twitter

Class of 2019

Editor-in-chief 2017-18, 

Local and national news department head 2016-17

Born in Hyderabad, India, Likhitha Butchireddygari moved to Baltimore at a young age. She is pursuing a Program II major entitled "Digital Democracy and Data" about the future of the American democracy.


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