Ascension of the Whale. Aronofsky's Bizarre God
The film for which Brendan Fraser won an Academy Award is generating controversy. Not as much as it should, however. The picture is accused of 'body shaming', i.e. breaking one of the tenets of political correctness. Although the director has made a work that expresses his specific religious view of the world.
"Do you believe in God?", asked director Derran Aronofsky his much older professional colleague William Friedkin. This took place during a conversation on the Directors Guild of America podcast 'Director's Cut' in 2017. The director of the legendary 'The Exorcist' spoke to Aronofsky on the occasion of the premiere of his film treatise 'Mother!'.
Although 1973's 'The Exorcist' is, in spirit, a Catholic film - a fact, after all, not concealed by the professing Catholic author of the book and screenplay, William Peter Blatty (himself directing the controversial 1990 third instalment) - Friedkin still describes himself as an atheist, but guided by the teachings of Jesus.
Is Aranofsky also an atheist? Certainly to a different degree than Friedkin. Aronofsky's films are filled with religious syncretism.
Derran Aronofsky has said more than once that he is not a religious man, although he was brought up in the Judaic tradition. In an interview with Friedkin, he stressed that Scripture belongs to everyone and he sees no problem in reinterpreting its stories and reading them anew.
"'The Whale', for which Brendan Fraser won an Academy Award this year, is a continuation of the explorations that have followed the Brooklyn-raised filmmaker since 'Pi' (1998). "The Fountain" (2006), "Noah" (2014), "Mother!" (2017) and the aforementioned 'The Whale' (2022) are films that make strong and unambiguous references to the Bible and Judeo-Christian mysticism, mixed with an ecological and even neo-pagan view of Mother Earth. Aronofsky is interested in something else. The clash between science and spirituality and the conflict of body and soul.
"The Whale" combines everything the director has explored before in his high-profile depictions of driving the body to extremes and self-destruction. 'The Wrestler' (2008), with Mickey Rourke outstanding in the lead role, and 'Black Swan' (2010), with Oscar-winning Natalie Portman, were about this. Both were about the self-destruction of the body in the name of bringing it to perfection. Both were also about sacrifice.
'The Whale' can be seen as a continuation of these works. It is significant that the controversy surrounding the latest film concerns accusing it of 'body shaming' [subjecting someone to humiliation and criticism because of their bodily features - ed.] This is, of course, pure oddity that could only occur in a public space degenerated by a culture of victimisation, where obese people are no longer allowed to be criticised, even though accepting their illness is destructive to society and to themselves.
Unfortunately, we live in such infantile times that attacks on Aronofsky's film from these idiotic positions are not at all surprising. What is shocking, however, is that so few religious analyses of 'The Whale' have appeared. And it is these themes that are the strongest, but also the most sensitive (mainly for Christians) part of the film. Well, but in a world of celebration and bowing to matter, they must remain poorly perceived.
Grace, forgiveness, redemption
Brendan Fraser plays Charlie in this film, a teacher who lectures students with his webcam turned off. He is ashamed of his monstrous weight and lives locked in a flat. The only person who visits him is his nurse and friend Liz (Hong Chau). She brings him more portions of junk food, but also strongly urges him to seek treatment. Liz knows that Charlie has very little time left and soon his fatty organs will refuse to function.
Meanwhile, unexpectedly, his daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), abandoned by him as a child - now rebellious and angry - appears in the life of the beleaguered Charlie. She resents her father's years earlier separation from his family and involvement with a man, his apprentice.
When his partner committed suicide, Charlie sank into a depression that turned into compulsive binge eating. - 'I don't want redemption,' he tells a missionary (Ty Simpkins) who (an uninvited intruder, a motif familiar from another religious Aronofsky film, more on that later) comes to his flat to preach the Good News.
So much so that Charlie's entire journey leads precisely to redemption. Redemption through sacrifice.
The screenplay of 'The Whale' is based on the 2012 stage play by Samuel D. Hunter's 2012 play. Hunter was raised in the Episcopal Church, where his homosexuality clashed with his parents' faith from an early age. He eventually abandoned his faith, but in 'The Whale' he wanted to expose its most important aspects: grace, forgiveness and redemption.
Charlie deliberately makes a sacrifice of himself. He refuses to undergo treatment and wants to give all his money to his daughter. In doing so, he quotes an essay on Herman Melville's 'Moby Dick', written by his daughter in primary school. He knows that the whale's body must be annihilated, but it is this text that paradoxically saves his life several times.
Ellie wrote her essay at a time when their family was having their idyllic time, before Charlie abandoned his loved ones. It was their paradise, Eden, which is an important element of Aronofskiy's entire cinema.
As an aside, it is worth mentioning that in the conversation with Aronofsky quoted at the beginning of this text, the director of 'The Exorcist' evokes the stories of Jonah and the whale, in the context of his own view of biblical mythology.
We follow the journey to Charlie's death, 'tempted' by a missionary urging him to follow the Christian path, over the course of less than a week. The story begins on Monday, when Charlie hears the verdict. On Thursday, a terrifying image of his Last Supper emerges. The finale takes place on Friday, when there is a martyrdom and the immediate, literal, ascension of the 'whale' - after the cleansing of his conscience.
This is the most mocked part of Aronofsky's movie by film critics, but it fits in with the whole bizarre theology of the director, who has previously taken the story of Noah himself onto his twisted fork.
People and animals
One can link 'The Whale' with 'The Wrestler', whose protagonist also sought redemption. His once perfectly sculpted body became his cross. Golgotha was the ring, and salvation the forgiveness of his daughter. The body was also mutilated by the striving for perfection of the heroine of 'Black Swan'.
Charlie, on the other hand, makes a confession to his ex-wife and daughter, but at the same time does not turn back from the self-destructive path his partner went down before. In Hunter's play, this was anorexia. Aronofsky prefers to focus on the two men's relationship itself and contrast it with the moral fundamentalism embodied by the young missionary. Charlie's ascension, then, does not occur as a result of the rejection of his sexual proclivities, which, after all, are still a sin for most Christians.
It is significant that also M. Night Shyalamalan ('The Sixth Sense', 'Signs') in his latest apocalyptic horror film 'Knock at the Cabin' shows that the salvation of the world comes through the sacrifice (almost like in Andrei Tarkovsky) of a homosexual family whose love is crystal clear. The ascension of the gays? Who would have thought that Shyamalan's cinema, so distant from Aronofsky's, would be united by such modernist thought.
Is this surprising in Aronofsky's oeuvre? No, because even his version of the Noah story is steeped in today's ecological outlook. In 'Noah', humanity is condemned for not living in an Edenic symbiosis with nature and animals. Russel Crowe, who plays Noah, explains to his sons early on that eating animals is wrong. The main villain, who is a descendant of Cain (Ray Winston), delivers a tirade that animals are to be subject to humans, after which he kills an animal from the Ark and eats it in front of his collaborator Cham.
East of Eden. But which one?
Eden and the expulsion of humans to the East is something that has fascinated Aronofsky for years. In 'The Fountain' (2006), a doctor (but also, in other timelines, a conquistador and astronaut) played by Hugh Jackman seeks immortality in the biblical Tree of Life. A rationalist and scientist, he attempts to cure his beloved wife (Rachel Weisz) of cancer and it is through her deep spirituality that he returns to Eden.
Redemption here also occurs through love, but also the separation of the soul from the body. Ascension involves physical union with the Tree of Life, which is then the central thought of 'Noah'. God dwells in nature and only our symbiosis with it gives us eternity.
Here, the great Hollywood natural theologian Terence Malick high-fives Aronofsky, even though it was he who finally abandoned religious syncretism in favour of Catholicism in his last film, 'A Hidden Life'. Aronofsky, on the other hand, is filled with this syncretism. Or is it even Gnosticism?
The punishment of the body of an athletic wrestler, an obese teacher and a ballerina playing the white and black swan is to free the pure spirit. The mathematician from his debut 'Pi' saw the possibility of a divine element in the perfection and infinity of numbers. He too had to mutilate his migraine-ravaged body.