Sunday, 21 January 2007

Death is the Road to Awe

I watched The Fountain today, having had to drive out to a mall with a Cinema Nouveau "art film" cinema in it, since the film was not showing on the normal circuits.

I now know why, and for the same reason it has been trashed in every single local review I have read: It is an extended musing on death. There is no plot to drive it (indeed, the elements of plot that give framework to the musing are only such as to sustain it, no more), and the three separate strands cannot be connected concretely. The other main character, Izzi Creo* lives only in the second contemporary strand, even though her existence expands into the two adjacent threads through the medium of her literary creation "The Fountain". The first strand is set, I presume, in sixteenth century Spain **, while the third is set in some distant future.

I think the key to understanding the film lies in understanding the main characters as archetypal. Its theme, as I have said, is death. The wife's cancer sounds the bell of inevitable mortality, and this inevitability is mirrored across the other two strands in her corresponding existence as the Spanish Queen in the first, and as the Tree of Life incarnation in the third. As queen she is opposed by the mythical figure of the Grand Inquisitor, a cruel and overstylized figure painted with deliberate exaggeration, who will have her executed for attempting to seek an eternal existence in the earthly sense. I should note here, for those who still hold to such propagandist views, that the Grand Inquisitor was not a dictatorial post (indeed, he could be curbed or overriden by the Suprema, the supreme inquisitorial council) and that the Spanish Inquisition was not as catastrophic a punitive body as is commonly believed. Though it was not without cruelty, it must be remembered that its punishments were not incongruous with secular equivalents (indeed its prisons were often better maintained on the whole - so much so that long-serving prisoners, even priests, have "faked" heresy so that they would be transferred to inquisitorial prisons!), and that executions were fairly normal punishments in the secular sphere. I am no historical white-washer: the anti-Semitism and flawed judicial form of the Inquisition is to me scandal and grief, no matter how much it can be explained as giving expression to the "Spanish temper". But we must place the Holy Office in Spain in its historical context and rid ourselves of the propaganda we have been fed about its supposedly epochal evils. Nonetheless, I do not believe the film wishes to inculcate consciously this image in the minds of the viewers, since the figure of the Grand Inquisitor is so obviously enlarged beyond all proportion (notice how he has already supposedly siezed three-quarters of Spain, and will now move against the Crown). This leads me to think that the Inquisitor becomes a symbol of religion and truth corrupted and skewed to dominate and oppress. In any case, from a Catholic perspective, the Inquisitor's insistence that the body is the "prison of the soul" is an old Gnostic heresy long condemned.

But back to the film. The mirrored incarnation of Izzi in third strand of the future is at threat simply because the Tree of Life, through whom she then lives, is dying. A beautiful ring links all three strands. In the first strand, it is given by the Queen to the conquistador, who fails to place it upon his finger when he "discovers Eden" as he was royally commanded. In the second strand, the main character loses the ring (which functions here as a wedding ring) and does not recover it. In the third strand, it is recovered and used, resulting in the consummation of death and rebirth. I believe that the ring symbolizes the acceptance of death. In the first, it is given but lost because of an avarice of life. Both queen and conquistador cling to this life, and in doing so lose the path to the Life that requires death. In the second, it is lost in the struggle to conquer death. While in the first strand, an acquiring greed wishes conquer death, in the second, technological prowess and ingenuity attempts to thwart it. Both fail, of course. In the third, consummating, strand, however, the main character realizes all this and passes into the acceptance of death. He recovers the ring, and through the medium of it, accepts his own death and the death of his wife Izzi. In so doing, he passes into the existence beyond death he could not possess without dying: life eternal.

The film is intensely religious, overtly so in the meditative lotus position of the character in the final strand and the quotation from Genesis at the introduction, and I must admit that it can be given a reincarnationist slant. However, I do not think it does, for the theme of the film is consummation in death: "Death is the Road to Awe". But of course, we do not feel awe passively, it is a response to something, or better, Someone. If death is the "road to awe", then it is not inimical to the film to extrapolate from it that the encounter in death with Reality is the ulimate event of all human life, and it will define our existence. This, of course, now comes within the concrete orbit of Christian eschatology, especially as speculatively put forward in the works of Ladislaus Boros. I do not think this necessarily far-fetched since the Mayan mythic figure of the "First Father" who sacrifices himself to bring forth the world, can be clarified as Christ who in His sacrificial death and resurrection as the Final Adam, raised the First Adam to Life Everlasting. These are all deeply personal reflections prodded into being by the film, and I suspect each person will upon reflection have another take on it. I am sure it can be given different slants, and I shall not therefore pontificate on its objective content. But go watch it, I urge you! It is splendidly done visually, and the music is extraordinarily fitting (worth buying the soundtrack for).

As I watched the final, sensually stunning scene of consummation-in-death, I reflected: The End will be more glorious than this, and I am not yet willing to sacrifice even a mere moment of self-comfort to pursue it.

Update: I have found another reviewer online who also sees in this film profound spiritual elements. He even sees in the eating of the tree in the last strand a Eucharistic element. Amazing!

* - Can I in happy naïveté imagine this to be the first person singular creare?
** - I do this on the basis of the existence of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, though of course it continued well into the eighteenth. Nonetheless, its overstylized portrayal lead me to postulate the sixteenth.

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