Darren Aronofsky’s first successful film was Pi, a brilliant and disturbing indie production which centers on the lives of obsessed mathematicians. The protagonist discovers a number, buried within the non-repeating, non-terminating number known as Pi. The discovered number is actually the name of God. It contains mysterious powers and the young mathematician finds himself hunted by the usual villains, Wall Street and the military.
The obsession with the number gradually drives him insane, and he find his ultimate safety (or is it salvation?) in taking drastic action to forget the name of God. In a gruesome and disturbing act of auto-lobotomy, he takes a drill to his own head, destroying the part of his brain in which the name of God is memorized.
Not exactly the kind of story for Sunday (or Saturday) School (or Shul). It is a thinly veiled assault on religious belief, portraying it as a source of unhealthy obsession, and aiming it at the Judeo-Christian tradition (mostly the former). And in case you doubt my interpretation, let’s look a little more closely at Aronofsky’s bio: Raised by conservative Jewish parents, he himself attended synagogue in a way which he describes as purely cultural, eventually describing himself as ‘godless.’
He has made public statements indicating that he is passé about whether to raise his children (from his short marriage to Rachel Weiss) even in a nominally Jewish environment. Pi was filmed shortly after Darren Aronofsky spent time in an orthodox kibbutz, during which he conceived the idea for the movie. In the case of his protagonist, literal godlessness (the physical ablation of the name of God) is the final heroic act of liberation.
The Fountain represents no real change in message, though a definite change in tone. Pi’s bleak and grainy mood gives way to kaleidoscopic beauty. But in the end, the message is the same. Hugh Jackman plays one man in three different time frames half a millennium apart, or is it three men, or one man and two imaginary flights of fancy? We never quite get a clear resolution to the narrative ambiguities. But we are left with little ambiguity about Aronofsky’s rejection of the Biblical view of the world.
Tomas (played by Hugh Jackman), the conquistador who believes the Torah account of the Tree of Life, seeks to save his queen (played by Weiss) from the evil Inquisition by searching for said tree. He must slash his way through Mayan guards to find it (okay, Inquisition bad? Check. Christianity and imperialism linked? Check. Mistreatment of native meso-Americans? Check).
Later, Tom (also Jackman), the 20th century scientist engages in an obsessive (one cannot write about Aronofsky without that word, I dare you) attempt to save his wife (also Weiss). Both Tomas and Tom fail, and even worse they fail to spend meaningful time with the dying queen/wife who repeatedly urges him to simply accept death, live in the moment and then bury her beneath a tree where her body can decay and be reincorporated back into the universe and its great cycle of life.
500 years later, Tommy the astronaut tries to resurrect his dead wife (Jackman/Weiss again) in a dying star. Eventually he comes to accept things as they are, assumes the Lotus position and enlightenment is achieved. Message received: Christianity is the religion of the crusaders. It shows up in modern times as the scientific quest to create pharmaceutical remedies for disease, and finally our hero leaves all of this behind, renounces both and all desire and becomes a Buddhist of a sort. No God will save us; we must simply accept the inevitable triumph of time and entropy and find escape in a godless mysticism.
As I write this article, I stand where you do, among the general public (not professional movie reviewers) awaiting the release of the epic film Noah. So I don’t know what we’ll see, not for certain. But Darren Aronofsky has made public statements distancing his movie from the Biblical account (dropping F-bombs for emphasis), and the film is reported not to mention the name of God. So it is, like its — but not our — Creator, literally godless.