mother!, Darren Aronofsky, 2017
“We spend all our time here. I wanna make a paradise.”
Darren Aronofsky is a director who has never shied away from portraying the grim realities of human suffering, but his latest film, mother!, has an altogether bigger form of suffering to portray. It is a bleak vision of the suffering of humans, but also the suffering of the world on which we live.
Throughout the ages, it has been a hallmark of religious and philosophical thinking to try to justify or understand this suffering, an intractable dilemma that people struggle with in reconciling their lives with the belief that there is something bigger than themselves. This dilemma is known as the Problem of Evil and Suffering and is perhaps best formulated by Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus:
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent [all powerful]. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
Or, to put it in contemporary terms: Why would a loving God allow his creation to suffer? For many, this points to proof that God (at least the Judaeo-Christian God) cannot exist. In mother!, we are confronted with the same dilemma in a viscerally affecting way.
On the surface, the film is about a broken relationship, and the attempts by one partner, Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) to rebuild this relationship with her troubled poet husband (Javier Bardem) through the literal rebuilding of his childhood home. She devotes herself to sustaining and supporting his ego, loving him unconditionally (as mothers do), and sacrificing everything to make the house perfect for him.
However, as has been expressed by Aronofsky in interviews, the film really presents an allegory of the relationship between God, humanity and Mother Earth. The Mother (Lawrence) is pure, beautiful and devastatingly committed to providing support to “Him” (Bardem), who treats her as simultaneously his muse and his foil, wilfully disagreeing with every statement she makes, and often hiding himself from her when she needs him most. Just as Him abuses Mother, so humans have abused nature, taking from her what we will while holding her up on a pedestal.
Throughout the film, uninvited house guests start to appear and put more strain on the relationship between Mother and Him, overpopulating the house and putting more strain on what Mother really wants, a pure “Garden of Eden” style relationship with Him; a paradise of symbiosis with the thing she loves the most.
There is no doubt that the film leans heavily on biblical allegory to tell this story, and this reference to the Garden of Eden points to the thoughts of many important philosophers of religion on the nature of suffering. Early Christian philosopher Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 CE) developed a theology of suffering that draws from the same source. He believed that the source of suffering was in the hearts of man.
To Augustine, the evils of the world were not a force in and of themselves, but rather a corruption of all good, and what was good was nature. Human free will caused us to turn away from the natural order, and thus suffering came to us. Similarly, in mother!, evil and suffering start to creep into the house due to the freedoms of man. When Him resists the directions of Mother, ignoring her pleas and taking his own path by welcoming in “Man” (Ed Harris) as a house-guest, he starts a chain of events that gradually build to devastating losses and suffering.
Augustine also believed that humans were unable to stop evil and suffering from entering the world. By our very nature, we are driven to sin, and this sin leads to punishment from God. We are predestined to suffer in the world. So it is with humans in the film. While it is clear that mankind is portrayed as an enemy to nature, it is a compassionate portrayal. We see that we are powerless to stop significant sufferings, and powerless to stop our own hubris that creates these sufferings. As “Him” points out, we cannot see the world as perfect, as then that leaves us no room to create and make it better. And creation is what drives all of our impulses.
The origin of suffering in the world is only one half of the problem of evil for theists. Perhaps we can allow that suffering has happened through no fault of God’s, but for what purpose? Why would a good God want us to suffer? Why would an all-powerful God not force us to always avert suffering? The answers for many theists lie in the ideas of early Church Father St. Irenaeus (130 – 202 CE).
Irenaeus proposed that suffering was necessary in order to allow us to grow and develop into the “likeness of God”. If we did not have a chance to suffer, we would truly become the people that God wants us to be. Suffering can teach us humility, empathy for others, and resilience. These are all no doubt virtuous attributes. This world, as described by philosopher John Hick, is a “vale of soul-making” that prepares us for the rewards of heaven. In the film, grief, at least in the eyes of humans, fills a similar role.
When a father has to come to terms with the death of his son, he is reminded that his son died in order to allow others to blossom and grow. Suffering serves a purpose for the representations of humanity in the film in that it allows them to develop their own individual ends. In fact, it is through this suffering that “Him” is able to write poetry again. So perhaps this suffering is beneficial after all?
Not so, for Aronofsky. In fact, it is this anthropocentric arrogance that seems to make him (and Mother) irater than anything else. The very idea that the cataclysmic destruction of the natural world is necessary for the good of humans shows just how small minded and selfish the human race is. Why does everything have to be for the benefit of mankind? The film prefers to see humanity as a polluting force that destroys the original pure paradise enjoyed in harmony with nature.
In attempting to solve the problem of suffering for humans, perhaps we have forgotten the real answer here. We are not the only species that suffers, but we are the cause of much of the suffering. Perhaps if we, the uninvited guests, eventually do leave Mother Earth’s house, we will give a chance for nature to start again.