“Will you deliver Spain from bondage?”
“I’m trying…I don’t know how”
“You do…you will.”
After a month of movies that wallow in the fear of death I thought it best to close this out with:
“Let us finish it” are the first words of Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain” possibly one of the greatest movies I have ever seen. (Although Aronofsky is himself an idiot and rather despicable person.)
Spoilers Ahead. Actually forget about Spoilers. Go watch the movie. You will have no clue what I’m talking about if you don’t see the movie. Some of you might not understand the movie either, but you should have a chance to form your own opinions before reading mine.
In case you didn’t take my advice…For those not familiar with the move there are three intertwining story lines throughout the movie. The first is of a Spanish Conquistador named Tomas on a mission for Queen Isabel to find a mythical Tree of Life in the jungles of the New World around the year 1500. The 2nd story is of Tommy, a doctor desperate to find a cure for the brain cancer killing his wife, Isabel, in the modern world, and nearly succeeds by taking a clipping from an old growth tree found in South America. The final is the story of Thomas, a man travelling in a spaceship with a tree whose bark extends his life, perhaps providing immortality, toward a star that is about to go nova in the hopes that the nova will provide the energy necessary to keep the tree alive. The three stories are intertwined. Thomas is clearly Tommy hundreds of years later, having found the secret of immortality, but not in time to save his wife. The relationship between these two stories and that of the conquistador is a little more murky, this story is either the book that Isabel was writing in 2000 or it is their past lives, living out the same cycle of lessons until they finally get it (I prefer this latter interpretation).
If that sounded convoluted, it gets far, far worse and I would really suggest that you go and rent the movie before continuing. Really, I mean it.
The movie’s central theme is the fear of death and how it is a paralyzing fear tied to the fear of life. Tomas’ fear of death causes him to be killed because he could not see a way out of the attack that kills him. Tommy’s fear of his wife’s death prevents him from enjoying the time he has with her. Queen Isabel’s fear of death leads to her own downfall and the death of Tomas. In a dozen small ways the fear of death is constantly shown to be antithetical to living one’s life.
But the movie also does something that you seldom see. It makes it clear that while one thing isn’t true the opposite isn’t necessarily true either. In this case the fear of death isn’t appropriate but neither is the embrace of death, best shown in the speech of the self-flagellating inquisitor:
“Our bodies are prisons for our souls. Our skin and blood, the iron bars of confinement. But fear not. All flesh decays. Death turns all to ash. And thus, death frees every soul. You the condemned, you have confessed, you admit to protecting a queen who twists the word of God and drowns all Spain in sin. Your Queen seeks immortality on earth–a false paradise. This is heresy. She leads you towards vanity…away from the spirit but this is foolishness. For death exists. The Day of Judgment is irrefutable. All life must be judged. “
Clearly we’re not meant to sympathize with this amor fati as it is spoken by a sociopathic monster. But this is put in to make sure that in not fearing death we don’t assume the opposite, the headlong embrace of death, is true either. They’re both very, very wrong.
So if we’re not to embrace death but not fear it…what is left? Don’t worry I’m not about to quote “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” (although that is one of about a dozen poems I would say every human being should have memorized).
The simple answer out of the false dichotomy is to not worry about death and rather live life. Death is merely a stage, “the road to awe” to neither be rushed toward or feared.
We see this best in Isabel from the 2000 storyline. She is dying of inoperable brain tumor (I know it’s a terribly overused trope, but only because it works). She is not afraid of death which translates to her living her life to its fullest. Stargazing, making love to her husband, writing, going to learn at a museum all within the last day of her life. Every moment seems to be lived in her life and thus she accepts her death without fear or regret when it comes. Paradoxically living allows one to accept death.
This is also shown in a very subtle way to anyone who is really looking (this movie is just chock full of subtle little hints and allusions, more than I could really go into in one blog, but this would be the most important one). One of the characters in the 1500 storyline is a monk, specifically a Franciscan monk. While the character is given a name, he is almost exclusively and repeatedly referred to as simply “Franciscan.” It’s an odd way to refer to a character, even a monk, unless there is a point of doing it. I would say that point is to bring up the poem the “Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi.” (Yes, I know St. Francis in all likelihood did not actually write this, however that does not mean the name recognition still isn’t there).
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
One of the other reasons I think that this poem is being referenced is the last line: “and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life” which is a good way to sum up the entire theme of this movie (although the poem is referencing heaven while the movie is focusing more on the idea that a full life leads to not fearing death, the general premise to live one’s life on Earth to the fullest is the same in both). And with this reference in mind, you can begin to see the character of Thomas (in all his incarnations) in the first half of each line of the first stanza and the enlightened Isabel of the 2000 storyline in the second half of the line (reversed in the 2nd stanza). They are almost perfect representations of each set of ideas…thus showing us the obvious superiority of the life suggested by this poem.
(I could spend hours dissecting all the little points of this scene and enjoy doing it…but admittedly I’m a little odd).
And of course the most important scene in the whole movie, after Tomas/Tommy/Thomas realizes that he is going to die, a realization that gives him the first peace he has ever known, he is able to relive the last full day of his wife’s life and make a different choice and live that day instead of fight death (I could deal with what this suggests about the fluid nature of time, but this blog is getting just a tad long, just accept that to a New Ager effect can precede cause). It doesn’t change the outcome. Whether he decides to embrace life or fear death, his wife dies…but he has a much more fulfilling experience one way over the other.
I’ve ignored a lot in this movie, and will probably come back at some later point, but at this moment it makes the perfect antithesis to this last month’s obsession with the fear of death.