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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



mother!, review: The allegory category

mother!, review: The allegory category

Darren Aronofsky’s reputation precedes him, as milling crowds at Mumbai Academy of Moving Image (MAMI)’s 19th Mumbai Film Festival (MFF) bore testimony. Every show was packed to capacity and it was only at 10.30 pm on the last day of the festival that I could get to see mother!, thanks to the consideration shown by an event manager earlier in the day. Any director who has names like Black Swan and Noah on his portfolio is bound to generate high levels of curiosity. After a ballet showpiece and a Biblical ark-ride, Aronofsky delves into the Bible again, reinventing many of the 2,000+ year-old tenets and adding many dimensions of his own, in mother!, a film that defies categorisation and revels in allegory.

An acclaimed author-poet and his live-in companion, ‘mother’, live in a huge mansion. He is struggling with writer's block. One day, an old man turns up at the house, asking for a room. He readily agrees, without asking mother. During his stay, the old man experiences prolonged coughing fits. The next day, man's wife also arrives to stay. When she protests, the poet begs mother to let them stay, telling her that the guests are fans of his work, and that the male guest is dying. Soon, the couple's two sons arrive and start to fight over the will their father has left. The older son, who will be left with nothing, mortally injures his younger brother, and seemingly flees, while his parents and the poet take the injured son for medical treatment.

Mother cleans up the blood stained scene but is unable to remove a spot of blood in the floor which, she, discovers has created a hole, and finds drops of blood making its way into the basement. She follows the trails, which highlight a hidden door in the wall, and opens the door, to discover nothing but a cellar to an oil tank for the furnace. She then covers the blood stained floor with a rug. Upon returning, the poet informs mother that the boy has died. Dozens of people begin arriving at the house for a wake for the dead son, and soon all hell breaks loose, literally, not figuratively.

Unlike his previous three directorial efforts, where he co-wrote two and just directed the third, Darren Aronofsky has full, solo writing credit here. His lead actor is God, as he is shown as the Creator and an entity who wants humans to share and care. He could also be the Devil, for he loves to bathe in fame and luxury. He is surely God if a child is born to his mate in a day, and she cannot but be the Holy Virgin. Yet, only a Devilish entity would hand over his new-born babe to a crowd of raving lunatics to kill and devour. Are they drinking his blood and eating his flesh, as in Biblical times, or is Aronofsky reading an invisible text between the lines of the original scriptures? Is fire the modern-day earth cleansing tool, unlike the floodwaters that left only Noah and his cargo alive? Among the dramatis personae, only Cain and Abel can be instantly identified.

Aronofsky treats almost the first two-thirds of the film as a suspense drama, or supernatural horror, waiting to lunge at you. What you get in the end is an often confusing mix of greed gore, and a ‘public relations campaign’ of that willingly descends into pillage and mass murder. Except for its premise in the origin of life on earth and the bi-polarity of good and evil, mother! defies categorisation. There is little doubt that the writer-director is playing with fire, both on screen and in his daring on screen go at Holy Book narratives that at least three of the major religions of the current world revere, with some variations in degree.

In tandem with his editor Andrew Weisblum, Aronofsky has created an ambience of violent chaos and stupefying jump cuts that grip you by the throat in the last one-third of the film. Torrid sex is also woven in, but only in fleeting moments and some gratis skin show. But he chooses not to answer such profound questions like who his lead characters really are, what is the crystal stone that begins and ends the film, what was the blood patch that appears, disappears and reappears, what are all the blurred and out of focus images about, and more. In a fact meets fiction meets religion meets over-the-top, these answers are essential if one is to make sense of it all. Allegory is fine. But how much and how far? Aronofsky wants his viewers to either do too much to unravel, or just sit back and marvel.

Jennifer Lawrence (X-Men, Hunger Games) as mother! is blank and sexy (you cannot ignore that seductive huskiness) and only gets to cry out well into the film. Spanish Javier (Ángel Encinas) Bardem (No Country for Old Men, Biutiful, Skyfall) has that curious look of latent evil and overt saintliness that goes well with the character. His must be conscious choice, eschewing the obvious selection of a Roman looks actor. Ed Harris (Apollo 13, The Truman Show, Pollock) as the old man fits the physical mould, while retaining the secrecy about his illness and sudden arrival.

Michelle Pfeiffer (The Fabulous Baker Boys, Batman Returns, Hairspray) as his wife is a clever vamp who never lets her machinations surface above her cool exterior and apparently honourable intentions. Domhnall Gleeson as the elder son and Brian Gleeson his younger brother have little to do besides going for each other’s jugular. And they happen to be real-life brothers! Kristen Wiig is fine as the poet’s publishing agent who does not hesitate to gun down anybody who gets in the way of her author’s success ‘celebration’.

Some felt that Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream was very difficult viewing whereas Black Swan was a much appreciated psychological thriller. mother! might find a place somewhere in between, a technical triumph that aches for a more coherent story, instead of the ‘more of the same’ that keeps unfolding on growing scales. Still worth a watch.

Rating: ***




About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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