The Art of Dying: Review of THE FOUNTAIN (2006)

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Certainly philosophical and quirky, but the film seems somewhat too personal. It’s like a private experience, intimate and passionate at core, but when viewed from the outside, trivial and perhaps ludicrous. The audience (me) is in a disadvantaged position, unable to critique a work that attempts to depict what is obviously a personal struggle — namely, coming to terms with death — and simultaneously unable to participate in the struggle without overlooking the artifice of the narrative.

The film is all about death. Death as disease, death as release; death as termination, death as sweet beginning; death as adversity, death as peaceful embrace. A husband and wife exhibit these contrary views regarding death; the husband, Tom, doctor-cum-researcher, believer of science and life, avowing to battle against death the enemy; the wife, Izzi, writer, believer in pagan (chiefly Mayan and Buddhist) philosophy and the virtues of death.

The wife dies (of cancer) while the husband, anguished and fired with maniacal energy, tries to find a cure for death. Weaved into the narrative is the narrative of his wife’s unfinished (eponymous) book which is an allegory of their lives set in fifteenth century Spain. The conquistador must rescue the Queen  from total surrender to the Inquisitor’s advancing acquisition of her lands. Like the conquistador of this parallel narrative, the doctor, Tom tries to rescue Izzi from death, from the spreading tumour, by discovering the Tree of Life, the promise of immortality. He is engaged in researching the curative and anti-aging properties of a tree-sample. In the wife’s unfinished tale, he is in pursuit of the Tree of Life, guaranteer of immortality and health. The third dimension, of the dream-narrative, connecting both realms –the real and the fictional — shows the synthesis of polarities between life and death, and finally the resolution of guilt and conflict in Tom. The dream-Tom discovers the tree of life and takes it with him to the realm of the dead in order to grant life for his wife (look! that rhymes) so that they may live together for eternity.  However before he is able to reach the death realm, the tree dies on him. Like Izzi, devoid of life force (nourishment), it had been slowly dying. And so, there is only one thing left to do, in each of the three realms. The husband must finish the book; the conquistador must die in trying to secure life; and the pilgrim traveller to Xibalba (the Mayan realm of the dead) must join the dead.

The bottom-line is this: Only in death can we live forever. In other words, death is the promise of immortality. Because when you die, you become free to become everything in the universe, a tree, a wood, the bloom, the bird, etc, etc. Life springs from death, the basic tenet of Buddhism and Mayan philosophy. Though I found the philosophy cliché (all philosophy is, this doesn’t help my point), and the treatment self-important, the film, like most narratives on death, is not easily forgotten, obliterated, buried. It moves you despite its faults. The best thing about the film is its music. I’m not a fan of slow, boring instrumental music, but Clint Mansell’s orchestra is pure awe. I was surprised to find that it was actually explicating the film. In the parts that seem clouded and murky the music tells the story instead. “Death is the road to awe,” the best of the songs (link below), for instance, conjures up that sense when the slight anxiety you feel in your heart when wandering along a cliff, suddenly turns to pure dread once you edge closer and sight the deep yawning abyss below. The closeness and irreparability of the misadventure hits you and its either edging back resisting the pull or allowing yourself to get drawn in – to awe.

CLOWNIN’ Score: 3/5

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