**Note: this essay contains spoilers for mother! You’ve been warned.**
There’s a lot going on in Darren Aronofsky’s mother! The film is packed from beginning to end with layered metaphors. Is it a straight religious allegory? A statement on how artists exploit their muses? How men mistreat women?
One thing that can’t be denied is the Biblical imagery, which plays like a greatest hits of Western theological texts. There’s original sin. Cain and Abel. The great flood. A joking reference to the plagues of Egypt. Oh, yeah, and a particularly stomach-churning take on the Nativity, the Crucifixion and the Eucharist.
As a Christian film critic, I find both a challenge and an opportunity in mother! Darren Aronofsky’s view of scripture is theologically misguided, and some images (like the aforementioned Eucharist) are truly upsetting. But because I spend a lot of time looking for spiritual themes in secular films, it’s thrilling to have one that puts those themes front and center in a compelling way.
To some viewers, one religious element that may show up is the feminine divine, in the form of Jennifer Lawrence’s titular mother (the lowercase is intentional). The concept of the feminine divine can be loaded and new-agey. But in a progressive Christian context, it just boils down to thinking of God as a woman. It means replacing traditionally male-gendered pronouns in scripture and prayer with female ones, embracing all of the nurturing feelings that go along with reading sacred texts that way.
The roles of both Lawrence and Javier Bardem’s Him can be--and are meant to be--read in several ways, including as two separate forms of God. However, Lawrence is arguably the more spiritually-based of the two. She builds a home from the ashes of a fire. She claims that she’s creating a paradise, a paradise which is then ruined by careless intruders. Bardem talks about bringing life into the house, but it’s Lawrence who actually does that, by conceiving a child.
To Aronofsky’s credit, Lawrence feels grounded. She gets her hands dirty. Her loving and giving nature expresses itself through pride in her hard work, rather than manifesting as dreamy, one-love statements.
However, the director’s version of the feminine divine remains traditionally female in her lack of agency. This does his representation a disservice, both theologically and in how it’s connected to the film’s portrayal of sexism. Not only is Aronofsky removing autonomy and power from God, but in connecting that exploitation to the treatment of women, he’s misrepresenting female autonomy, too.
Part of the power of a feminine divine is that it combines motherly love with the power typically associated with a masculine God. The feminine God is still God, with omnipotence and agency. Aronofsky’s portrayal of a female God is more like a cosmic Giving Tree, selflessly providing, horrified at what’s done with those gifts, but unable to anticipate the sin of man, and powerless to stop it.
The character with actual control is Bardem. Lawrence may have the power to create and destroy life, but he invites chaos into their home and lets it take up residence. In the film’s final moments, Bardem pushes the reset button to run the horrific scenario over and over again, by removing a crystal from Lawrence’s charred heart. Bardem’s character is also the only one with a capitalized name, reflecting God’s capitalized pronouns in most Bibles. In addition to his agency, Bardem is also worshipped, and the photos of him that his fans carry resemble icons.
Even if you choose to read the film this way, Aronofsky still presents a meek, helpless characterization of women. While it may be the film's chosen way to illustrate its commentary on sexism, it’s still a problem.
Throughout the film, Lawrence’s feminine qualities are weaknesses to be exploited. Characters comment on her beauty, proposition her and later beat her, calling her profane names. Obviously, abuse and shame and inappropriate comments are things women endure daily. However, to think that all women respond to those actions with naive shock or powerlessness is a misrepresentation.
Ultimately, the issue may be that the main characters of mother! are too many things at once. Lawrence represents God, mother nature, artistic inspiration, the Virgin Mary, the wife of an artist and women as an entire gender. Bardem represents God, humankind, the artist, fame and the artist as a husband. To develop the characters further in any direction would be to lose the effectiveness of the other allegories.
In the end, mother! is a fascinating artistic and philosophical exercise, but the film’s ideas about women are wanting. It’s true that we frequently commit sins against God and injustice against womankind. But it’s a mistake to think of either as passive victims.