I recently wrote a piece for Transpositions on the genre of parable as it relates to Darren Aronofsky’s recent horror allegory, mother!, as well as the Dardennes’ The Unknown Girl:
In film critic circles—particularly film critics of a religious persuasion—the term ‘parable’ will be tossed out in a review to describe a film. A film may be a ‘parable of grace’ or a ‘parable for our times’. Recently, Darren Aronosky’s disturbing new film mother! has provoked the descriptor from a wider variety of critical reviews, both religious and secular.
In mother!, Jennifer Lawrence stars as Mother, a young woman married to an older poet (Javier Bardem). The two live in a large Victorian house in an isolated country utopia. He attempts to write and create while she maintains and repairs the house from damage it had sustained in a fire. When a Man (Ed Harris) and a Woman (Michelle Pfieffer) unexpectedly arrive at their door, Bardem’s husband character invites them in, to the chagrin of the hesitant Lawrence. Dark visions and distressing pangs grow within Mother as the guests become increasingly unorthodox and hostile, ultimately leading to violent confrontations.
In The Guardian, Mark Kermode called mother! an ‘eco-parable’, while the New York Times said it is ‘an ambitious parable hidden in a horror flick’. Reviews and discussions in The Ringer, Variety, LA Times and Collider all describe mother! as a parable. When audiences and critics were initially confused or outraged by mother!’s content, Aronofsky unpacked the film’s meaning in interviews throughout the publicity circuit. In his “Anatomy of a Scene” video from the New York Times, he describes how he wanted to make an allegory about Mother Nature and humanity’s relationship to the earth, using the stories of the Bible as his narrative inspiration. In an interview with Vulture, Aronofsky calls the film an allegory intended to excite people, to capture the emotion of our cultural moment, what he calls a ‘helpless rage’ in light of environmental disasters. It is an allegory, a metaphor, a parable.
Every time this happens, I think of the classic line from The Princess Bride about the word ‘inconceivable’: ‘You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means’.
Are allegories and parables equivalent forms or genres, or are there significant distinctions to be made? Can modern-day films follow the forms and conventions of parables? What is a parable, exactly, and how does one properly apply the category to cinema?