Darren Aronofsky’s film mother! starts out well enough, making masterful use of its setting and cinematography and centring on stellar performances from Jennifer Lawrence as Mother and Javier Bardem as her husband Him, a writer. And then it falls apart, climaxing with a woefully trite parody of the Mass, particularly as it is connected to the Passion, and the Eucharist. Abby Olcese very generously says that “Aronofsky’s view of scripture is theologically misguided.” I’d go further: its contextless depiction of the Passion and the Eucharist is disingenuous. In any case, however out of its depth mother! is when it comes to the Passion and the Eucharist, it does (credit where credit is due) expose the banalization of some overly familiar Catholic teachings, and reminds the audience of just how startling the Church’s claims are.
Passion and Parenthood
The first problem mother! runs up against is its incoherent portrayal of the Passion. Near the midpoint of the film, two brothers burst into the house Him and Mother share, and one kills the other in a scene reminiscent of Cain and Abel. The dead son’s mother tells her hostess that the grief of losing a child is unimaginable. This serves to set up the later scene in which He gives his newborn baby to a feverishly adoring mob, who then kill the baby, put the baby’s remains on a table, and eat the remains, in a crass parody of the Mass. The only life the baby has now is the abysmal wailing and tears of Mother and the mob, and He tells Mother that they should forgive the mob. We are to understand this as being an unimaginable and incomprehensible evil, which He both caused to happen and then brushed off by wanting to forgive. The film sees Him as at best self-absorbed, naïve, and insensitive, if not flatly monstrous in Him’s disregard for others. The idea of God the Father loving the world so much that He gives His only Son, so that the Son may die, is, from the film’s perspective, barbaric, because no good father could ever forgive the death of his son.
The problem is that mother! allegorizes the Trinity in very odd ways. It seems not to appreciate the idea of God coming to humanity and joining the human experience, and drives an enormous wedge between the Father and the Son, evading the Son’s statements to the effect that the Father and the Son are one with each other, for example. The idea of God’s self-sacrifice is absent, even as self-sacrifice is present in the film; at the climax, Mother sacrifices herself by blowing up the house, hoping to destroy Him and the mob. Her self-sacrifice is desperate and ultimately futile, but it is not any less heroic because of that. mother!, however, does not apply an understanding of heroic self-sacrifice to God. It’s strange insistence on distancing the baby from Him (and thereby God the Father from the Son) means that it is entirely incapable of correctly portraying God’s self-sacrifice (which is entirely at odds with self-absorption), of showing Christ as both High Priest and victim, and because of its own failing, it is compelled to reject God’s sacrifice. As a commentary on the Christian story, it’s incoherent and inconsistent.
Furthermore, because the loss of a child is so abhorrent, mother! presents Him’s exhortation that the mob should be forgiven as absurd. It’s too great an evil to forgive. To forgive, mother! implies, would be to let evil triumph without being destroyed, and to lose moral fortitude.
Most problematically, mother! removes the Passion from the context of sin and redemption. While the film certainly seems to believe in evil, portraying Him as such, the idea of rupturing a relationship with Him is completely absent. While there are Adam and Eve figures, there is no functional moment of Original Sin; there is a moment when they break Him’s most treasured possession, but this does not rupture their relationship with Him in a way that prompts the suffering at the film’s climax.
This means that mother! cannot present the Passion in any context in which it effects redemption and salvation, and so there can be no new Adam doing as the first should have done. (This is a shame, considering that Aronofsky’s Noah depicted Adam’s sin and its consequences so effectively.) And so, the Passion is absurd if it occurs in a vacuum. Of course, the idea of God participating in the human experience even to the point of death, dying on the cross, is pointless and even barbaric if one presents it without the context of God making Himself present in every part of human life and taking on the debt that sinners owe. Of course, forgiveness is absurd, going against natural instincts for revenge or justice. Of course, every fibre of one’s being screams out against forgiving a wrongdoer. Of course, the idea of dying for anyone, especially those who have hurt you, is bizarre if you’ve pre-emptively said that forgiveness is absurdly insufficient and unjust. In removing the Passion from any context whatsoever, let alone the Christian one in which it is properly understood, mother! is frankly disingenuous in its manipulation and distortion of the Christian story.
Now, mother! is certainly not trying to be a one-to-one allegory of the Christian story, and so some inconsistencies are to be expected. The point here is not to nit-pick that such-and-such detail isn’t perfectly right (this complaint that Mary didn’t witness the murder of Abel, for example, strikes me as missing the point). However, these inconsistencies are vital to the film’s ability to make the Passion incomprehensible. If mother! is not going to use the elements of the Christian story in a way that makes them recognizably connected to that story, there is no point in borrowing them, the film’s commentary on them is irrelevant, and they become meaninglessly arbitrary references.
The Bloody Flesh our Only Food
The idea that the Eucharist, eating Christ’s flesh and drinking His blood, is shocking is actually older than the Eucharist itself if John’s Gospel is anything to go by. Some of Jesus’s followers left the Lord well before the Last Supper because of this teaching. So again, it’s not as if mother! has hit upon anything particularly new when the mob starts eating the flesh of the baby He has offered them, depicting the reception of Communion as literal cannibalism. That’s shocking, mother! will have you know. Shocking indeed. Asinine as this may be, it does serve as a reminder that yes, this actually is an unsettling belief. Catholics can get overly pious sometimes telling stories about Eucharistic miracles in which, at the words of consecration, an unbelieving priest realizes that the host he holds has miraculously turned into real flesh, thereby passing over the question of what is meant to be eating Christ’s flesh at the expense of trying to demonstrate the truth of the Real Presence.
Now, to some extent, portraying the Eucharist as a baby being ripped apart and eaten doesn’t offend me, shocking as it is; it’s somewhat in keeping with putting baby Jesus in a manger, which is pretty clearly a prefigurement of the Eucharist. However, like with the Passion, mother! portrays the Eucharist as barbaric by removing it from its proper context.
Firstly, the film undermines the Resurrection, saying that the dead baby’s life is in the wailing and mourning. There is no triumph or harrowing of Hell, but just eternal grief. Hope is futile. But it is that new life that makes the reception of the Eucharist more than mere cannibalism. As Pope St. John Paul II says,
For in the Eucharist we also receive the pledge of our bodily resurrection at the end of the world: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (Jn 6:54). This pledge of the future resurrection comes from the fact that the flesh of the Son of Man, given as food, is his body in its glorious state after the resurrection. With the Eucharist we digest, as it were, the “secret” of the resurrection.
mother!, however, in undermining the Resurrection, necessarily undermines this aspect of the Eucharist as well. The Eucharist can only be cannibalistic if it is a dead baby, as mother! depicts. It is not that the Eucharist is in itself cannibalistic, the domination of a dead victim’s remains, but that it is made cannibalistic because of how mother! distorts its context. The true Eucharist is a participation in a body that defeats death, a nigh-on erotic acceptance of the totality a person who lives, and a preparation for the wedding feast of the Lamb.
The film’s cyclical narrative, however, undermines the eschatological significance of both the Resurrection and the Eucharist; instead of a narrative culminating in something, such as the wedding feast of the Lamb and the resurrection of the body, Him wipes the slate clean after Mother destroys the house and He recreates her, starting the story over again. There is no “last day” on which to be raised up, and no risen body in which we partake and are incorporated, and therefore the Eucharist is worthless. The mob can only eat dead flesh.
Secondly, there is no concept of communion. As Brett Salkeld puts it,
We call Eucharist “communion” for two utterly inseparable reasons: that it brings is into closer relationship with God by giving us the very life of God, and that it binds us in love to the community of the Church. The first is called vertical and the second horizontal, but neither can be achieved in isolation…
The Fathers of the Church were unequivocal that the relationship between the Eucharist and the Church is that of cause and effect. The Eucharist is the food that God uses to make the body of Christ, the Church. Physical food makes physical bodies; spiritual food makes spiritual bodies. Or, to use patristic language, mystical food makes the mystical body.
The horizontal aspect of the Eucharist should now be clear. We are brought into communion with our sisters and brothers, made one body with them, by sharing the Eucharist. And the body that we are made into is Christ’s body.
The Eucharist as the “body of Christ” is the means by which Christ gathers the faithful into his resurrected body (described as a “spiritual body” in 1 Cor. 15). As Augustine was told, “You will eat me, but you will not turn me into you. Rather, you will be turned into me.” Our own resurrection is utterly dependent on this incorporation. Our bodies can be raised because they have participated in the resurrected body of Christ. Augustine called the final product of this incorporation the totus Christus. The whole Christ, head and members, is Christ together with his body the Church.
Our bodies are nothing but food. The Eucharist is the “body of Christ” because it is the food that Christ uses to feed – that is, to make – his body.
The people in the mob eat the baby’s flesh, but they are not made parts of one body by doing so. They already have some sort of negative unity, in that none of them have individual identities, and so nobody is really distinguishable from anyone else, but that is not true communion. Neither is the mob brought into communion with Him because the film has already established such a stark divide between Him and the baby. Because Jesus is not so removed from God, however, the true Eucharist can provide both vertical and horizontal communion, by bringing Him into us, and by our bodies being made by the same food.
And so, the Eucharist is absurd and barbaric outside of its proper context. If the Eucharist is not connected to new life and unity, it is unintelligible. mother! scores some very cheap points against the Church by depicting her rituals in contexts that make no sense.
The Hollow Womb of mother!
Aronofsky is not the second coming of Flannery O’Connor, who didn’t mind emphasizing just how violent God’s claim on us can be. O’Connor might be able to effectively connect drowning and Baptism to depict Baptism into death, but that’s because she had enough theological literacy to keep things in context, instead of just presenting allegorical events in the proper order.
Now, mother! is not merely a commentary on the Mass, but as its attempts at engaging with Catholic liturgy are positioned at the film’s climax, they assume centrality, and there can be no complete interpretation of the film that does not make this an interpretive key; the narrative would fail as a narrative if this parody of the Mass just happens to be placed where it is. This unintelligible slaughter is the culmination of the tensions the film tries to establish between God and creation and nature, man and woman, creativity and fertility and renewal and destruction, parents and children, order and chaos. Evan Cogswell at Catholic Cinephile argues that, as mother! does not only draw on the Christian story, but also pagan mythologies and meta-artistic concerns to make statements broader than nihilistic boilerplate, condemning the film because of its troublesome elements would be “to ignore the thoughtful and complex way Aronofsky wrestles with the vocation of the artist and how that can be abused in a unique setting haunted by Biblical themes.” That’s fair; indeed, I’ve said similar things about other stories. But the problem is not simply that the presentation of Catholic ritual is shocking, but that it is theologically hollow, and that this hollowness is the point to which the film builds up. mother! removes the Catholic elements too far from their true contexts for them to meaningfully contribute to anything Aronofsky wants to say about the artistic vocation or humanity’s relationship with nature, and so, in the end, mother!‘s style, technical mastery, and the promise of its introduction are all wasted by its lack of substance.
Mother does sacrifice herself to repair the damage that the Adam and Eve figures cause, the destroyed house is restored, and Mother lives again. This posits that it is not God who suffers to restore original grace, but Woman and Nature. Clearly, this is subversive, but it is a more effective use of the Christian story than a critique that removes the story’s elements from the context in which they fit, because it relies on undermining the audience’s expectations and drawing out meaning from the differences. It presents this subversive story as a corrective to the traditional story, but the only reason that the traditional story needs correcting at all is because of how mother!tells it. And that’s not a fair playing field.