The Corner

Culture

Justice and Mercy, Good and Evil, in Mother!

I was not optimistic about Darren Aronofsky’s new film, Mother! Some of the reviews led me to believe it would be ugly, pretentious, and even revolting, so I had decided to skip it. A fascinating review by Ross Douthat in the forthcoming print issue of National Review made me reconsider, and I’m glad I did. I saw the movie yesterday, and I think it does some genuinely remarkable, and praiseworthy, things.

One: It conveys the fundamentally shocking character of the basic Christian story, a character that has become obscured by centuries of overfamiliarity. The film is a religious allegory in which Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem play different divine principles, or different aspects of God’s nature. Bardem’s character is a God who loves humanity so much that, out of pure amour fou for them, he stands by as they murder his son – and then he forgives them even for that. This is indeed a shocking story, one that’s genuinely hard for many people to understand and accept. A certain prominent religious writer, one of the strongest early believers in the Christian story, even predicted that it would be seen by many as a “stumbling block” and as outright “folly.”

Two: It tells a story of sin through the perspective of God’s justice, not God’s mercy. This is, to the say the least, a counter-cultural perspective these days, and even has a ripped-from-the-headlines quality. Some prominent conservative Catholics are deeply troubled by Pope Francis’s emphasis on God’s mercy over God’s justice. They believe that his approach is a foolish one, because it scants the importance of sin and repentance and appears to offer what they call “cheap grace.” These conservatives are not getting a sympathetic hearing from the pope (who calls them “rigorists,” “Pharisees,” etc.) or from the surrounding secular culture (which — because the conservatives are exercised over sexual sins of which the secular culture approves – dismisses them as rigorists, Pharisees, etc.). But the movie takes the side of Jennifer Lawrence’s character, who comes across as utterly reasonable and commonsensical in her outrage against the horrors perpetrated by humanity. She is shocked and revolted that her husband will allow humanity to kill her son and then forgive them. She does not come across as a moralistic scold or a judgmental priss – the way people who talk about morality, about right and wrong, are usually depicted in popular culture. She is a totally sympathetic figure, and her forgiving husband looks, quite frankly, like a fool.

Three, and this is related: It portrays good and evil in a convincing way. I have read countless op-eds over the years that complain, “Why don’t we ever talk about sin anymore?” That’s balderdash; the fact is, we hardly ever talk about anything else. The problem is, we tend to talk about it from partial and partisan perspectives that end up only creating a stew of relativism. Some people condemn the sins of political correctness and gay sex and kneeling for the national anthem; other people condemn the sins of climate change and homophobia and standing for the national anthem; it all just becomes background noise. Jennifer Lawrence is one of our most appealing performers, and her character in this film is in clear contrast to relativism: She is pure innocence, an utterly persuasive instantiation of the Good against which Evil offends. And the Evil in the film is equally realistic: Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Kristen Wiig are all great, leading a supporting cast in which the headstrong madness of human crime and folly takes a firm and terrifying hold.

Director Aronofsky has confused matters a little by situating the linear story in a framing narrative of a history of cyclical recurrence. He is of course entitled to his own religious views, but I think this was an aesthetic mistake. The linear story at the film’s core is powerful enough, and it accounts for almost all of the movie’s running time. As a lifelong Religion Bore, I thought this movie was very thought-provoking, but it’s not for everyone. The violence is intense and, on one occasion, especially disturbing.

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