Thursday, 27 December 2012

Death in 'The Fountain'

So among the various and brilliant Christmas presents I received this Yuletide was the DVD of The Fountain, an intensely surreal and brilliantly flawed film that I have only seen once before. This was great timing as a few days before, taking a break from the hectic rounds of Christmas shopping, I had stopped off in the library and read the associated graphic novel in a single sitting.

The film and novel revolve around themes of death, resurrection and immortality. The plot is fairly similar in the two mediums but subtle differences in scenes, order and dialogue between them add complexity to any interpretation of the story's meaning.

Ultimately I saw the film as an examination of three major methods of dealing with death and its implications. The first, stressing inevitability and religion, is quickly dismissed. The other two themes, acceptance and denial, are then contrasted and compared throughout the remainder of the film.

1) Desirable Inevitability – The first narrative we are presented with is set in the Spain of the Reconquesta and features the intimidating Grand Inquisitor Silecio. We are presented with slightly different versions of this character in the novel and the film. However, a constant is his belief that physical bodies are weak and decaying vessels that precede the ascension to the afterlife. His liking for self flagellation illustrates his conviction that the physical body is prone to weakness and must be disciplined by the mind in order to achieve temporal power and heavenly immortality. He is evangelical and implacable in his application of these beliefs to others; using torture and clandestine execution in his efforts to usurp or control Queen Isabella. 

In neither the book nor the film does Silecio succeed in his schemes. While he survives the film he fails to divert the conquistadors exhibition to retrieve the Mayan Tree of Life. His failure is more total in the novel where his ambush of the Queen and attempts to execute Avila are thwarted by the heroic Tomas and his loyal soldiers. His religious interpretation of life and death has little further impact on the film.

The novel adds slightly more detail to the defeat of this inquisitorial attitude to suffering and death. In this version, Avila is eventually sacrificially executed by a Mayan priest. As Tomas passes his corpse he reveals a previously undisclosed animosity when he informs the recently deceased Avila that the future belongs to himself and the Queen rather than to the Church. Despite the Fransiscan's loyalty to the Crown he is associated with the philosophical focus on the afterlife that contrasts with Tomas' own striving for immortality.

2) Denial - The denial theme is far more visible and is closely associated with Hugh Jackman's various characters. This attitude sees death as an obstacle that can be overcome by personal effort, scientific endeavour and the utilisation of powerful mystical paths to everlasting life. Conquistador Tomas, scientist Tommy and Ascendant Tom see others as tools to be used in the service of the focussed will. They echo the ruthlessness of Silecio by sacrificing followers and driving subordinates to inhuman efforts. 

However, this view too is ultimately shown to be defective. It leads to great achievements but never seems to be capable of bringing any lasting victory over death. Donovan's recovery is too late to help Izzi and both the Tree of Life and the Xibalba nebula are revealed to be reliant on death and renewal for their powers of creation. By the end of the movie Tom is forced to accept that there is no way to defeat death without embracing it. 

3) Acceptance - This insight is the pinnacle of the movie and is reflected in the oft-repeated claim that 'Death is the Road to Awe'. While denial has driven the plot and provided an emotional intensity to the film it has been tempered throughout the movie (and novel) by the urgings of certain characters that Tom must accept the world as it is and make the best use of his remaining time with Izzi. 

This theme is best represented by Izzi's serene acceptance of her eventual death and her efforts to comfort Tommy and to explore difficult concepts through her authorship of 'The Fountain'. Even Tommy's colleagues, perhaps best placed to understand his obsession, urge him to spend more time with his wife and not to attempt the impossible to the detriment of his health. 

These strong themes and questions allow the film to work despite its one dimensional characters and occasionally clumsy pacing. By focussing on these dominant characteristics of Tomas/Tommy/Tom and Isabella/Izzi the narrative is freed to engage with fundamental questions of existence in a sustained and engaging manner. Brilliant special effects and a fantastic soundtrack round off a thought-engaging offering by Darren Aronofsky.  

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