THE FOUNTAIN. Aronofsky’s Stunning Mystery Movie Explained

Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain” is one of the cinematic textbooks of ars bene moriendi,…


4 July 2024

THE FOUNTAIN. Aronofsky's Stunning Mystery Movie Explained

…which we can place on the shelf alongside Mike Nichols’ Wit (2001), Hattie Dalton’s Third Star (2010), or Death of a Provincial (1965) or The Spiral (1978) by Krzysztof Zanussi.

There are many films of this kind, all united by one theme – the most universal of the universal, both metaphysical and materialistic, and one that cannot be exhausted – ultimate questions. Death. What is it? Can it be conquered? Can it be welcomed with dignity? Is there even such a thing as dying with dignity? Is it really something final, or just another stage – a new beginning? A multitude of questions and no answers, but the lack of answers is an inherent feature of films of this type. The great unknown has tempted artists since the dawn of time. It also tempted Darren Aronofsky – at that time the author of Pi and the acclaimed Requiem for a Dream. The Fountain

The Fountain

Three Stories of The Fountain

In The Fountain, Aronofsky weaves three parallel narratives that form a larger whole. The shape of this whole depends on our perception and interpretation of the film, as there are three most probable versions of events in this largely dreamlike and at times even surreal work.

The first and primary thread takes place “here and now” – in our times. We meet a young married couple – Izzy (Rachel Weisz) and Tom (Hugh Jackman). We find Dr. Tom Creo in his laboratory. He is obsessively working on something, conducting experiments, and is nervous. Soon we learn that he is trying to discover a cure for cancer. However, his motives are personal. His wife is seriously ill. It is the final stage of her cancer. Soon, the couple will part forever. Izzy seems to have accepted her situation. She is enjoying her last days as much as she can, but her husband is absent – convinced that he can save his wife, he spends days and nights at work. He is close, closer than ever to a breakthrough. Izzy is working on a novel about the fountain of youth, set in 16th-century Spain and South America…

The Fountain Rachel Weisz

The second thread tells the story of a Spanish conquistador (also played by Hugh Jackman), who, on behalf of the Queen of Spain (Rachel Weisz), tries to find the legendary tree of life in South America, the source of youth and immortality. The Spanish Crown is threatened by the Grand Inquisitor (Stephen McHattie), who opposes the commissioned quest and declares war on the Queen (in his view, a heretic).

The third thread is the most enigmatic and dreamlike. A monk-hermit (again Hugh Jackman), tending to the tree of life, ascends towards a star called Xibalba by the Mayans – a dying star. He is constantly haunted by visions of previous incarnations.

Three Keys to The Fountain

We can understand the intertwining of these threads in many ways. I would like to present the three most interesting and convincing interpretations.


The first is based on the idea of reincarnation – all three characters (the conquistador, Dr. Creo, and the hermit) are simply three incarnations of one soul. There are also indications that the tree cared for by the hermit is an incarnation of Izzy. The director clearly suggests this solution through skillful associative editing. The hairs on the tree bark resemble the hairs on Izzy’s nape, and in one shot, a root touched by the hermit’s hand transforms into her body. In the scene where the conquistador receives his commission, the queen is persistently framed through a wooden screen with floral motifs, the tree from the third thread dies along with Izzy, and at the end of the film, Tom plants a seed on her grave, remembering the story his beloved wife told him before her death about the deceased father of Moses Morales – a Mayan guide: He said that if they dug up his father’s body, it wouldn’t be there. So they planted a seed on his grave. The seed became a tree. Moses said his father became part of that tree. He grew into the wood, into the flowers… And when the sparrows ate the fruits from the tree, his father flew with the birds. He said that death is the road to awe for his father. That’s what he said. The road to awe.

The Fountain

Interestingly, reincarnation in Aronofsky’s film has a dual character – mystical and purely scientific. We are dealing with one soul wandering through the universe in search of another – the one that once belonged to Thomas’s beloved woman. The soul has traveled a long journey (the tattooed rings on the hermit’s hand mark successive incarnations) to ultimately achieve enlightenment and unite with the cosmos. On the other hand, as vividly illustrated by the story told by Izzy, reincarnation is presented in the film as a purely biological process – as something we understand by the concept of the cycle of matter in nature.

The Fountain HUGH JACKMAN Rachel Weisz

The second interpretation is based on narrative logic and results from the fact that we move into the past when Tom reads his wife’s manuscript. The events of the Spanish thread are simply a literary fiction recorded by Izzy in the pages of her novel. The question arises about the message and symbolism, as we find a very simple analogy between the first and second threads (according to my numbering). Queen Isabella (in the first thread Izzy) commissions the conquistador (in the first thread Dr. Creo) to find the tree of life (the cure for cancer) to end the tyranny of the Inquisitor (Izzy’s illness). The scene where the Grand Inquisitor Silecio bends over a map of Spain (where the queen’s lands are marked) and, as if over an x-ray image of Izzy’s brain, smudges a bloody stain – the spreading cancer – is particularly suggestive.

The Fountain HUGH JACKMAN Rachel Weisz

What, then, is the hidden meaning of Izzy’s novel? Most likely, the author writes it for her husband to help him understand her stoic point of view. Her book thus serves as an ars moriendi manual written specifically for Tom – a man who constantly fights death and cannot accept that it is something natural: Death is a disease like any other. And there’s a cure. A cure. And I will find it, he says in one scene. Queen Isabella forbids any attacks on the Grand Inquisitor (i.e., the illness). She sends the conquistador to South America to find the source of immortality. However, only the queen seems to intuitively understand from the beginning what the secret of eternal life is – that death is its source: Wear it when you find Eden, she says, giving Thomas a ring, and when you return, I will be your Eve. Together we will live forever.

The Fountain

The ring is a fascinating prop in the film – in all threads, it symbolizes a bond. At the very beginning of the film (in the contemporary thread), Dr. Creo loses his wedding ring. From that point on, his obsession with fighting his wife’s illness deepens, paradoxically distancing him from her. After Izzy’s death, Tom uses ink to tattoo a ring on his finger. The tattoo, as a trace of the lost ring, will remind Tom of the broken bond, which he will restore in one of his future lives. The tattoo thus symbolizes the longing for completeness – for the lost element pursued through successive incarnations. Similarly, the ring is significant in the Spanish thread. At the end of the film, when Thomas wants to put the ring on his finger, he dies to be reborn as part of the life-giving tree. Union is impossible at this stage. Only the hermit in the third (timeless) thread manages to put the ring on his finger – over the place of the tattoo, thus fulfilling his destiny and uniting with his wife. The tattooed rings on the arm are an extension of the tattooed ring. These are the fruitless incarnations the protagonist had to go through in search of his beloved woman.


The third interpretation of The Fountain is the least convincing, although not without grounds. It suggests that it is not Izzy who dies, but Tom. He is already an old man and on his deathbed recalls his dying wife and her novel about the Indian source of immortality – contemplating the phenomenon of death through memories.

It is striking that throughout the narrative, Tom is visited by various visions, such as when he looks at the ceiling in the hospital’s operating room vestibule and sees a dying star – the goal of his journey in the third thread. This hermit’s journey is nothing more than a symbolic representation of dying – Tom is approaching the end: We’re almost there, he says several times to the beloved soul embodied in the tree, with which he will soon unite through his own death.

The scene where Tom runs out of the hospital room where doctors are resuscitating his wife is suggestively filmed. In horror, he sees a seriously ill old man, confined to a bed. Could he be looking at himself? Afraid of the vision of death he fought against all his life.

The Fountain

This brings us back to Izzy’s book – The Fountain – written (according to this and the previous interpretation) specifically for Tom, for comfort and solace. Creo is to finish the book to fully understand the nature of death. Did it fulfill its role? Of course. After all, Tom ultimately achieves harmony. He reconciles with his karma and departs in peace, uniting with the beloved soul. I will die… I will die… Tom repeats with a smile when talking to his wife’s spirit, as if death were something positive.

And indeed, death according to Aronofsky seems to be something positive, in line with what Queen Isabella says in one of the scenes: Do not mourn for Spain. Dark times have come. But above every shadow, no matter how deep, hangs the threat of morning light (this light plays a significant role as a cinematic device in The Fountain – there are many scenes where sudden brightness illuminates the darkness, emphasizing the film’s message).

The Fountain


Contrary to what I initially stated about the lack of answers being an inherent part of films in the ars moriendi genre, Darren Aronofsky seems to confidently address the eternal questions about the nature of death. He refers (regardless of interpretation) to Eastern philosophy, and his views appear to lean towards “transreligiosity.” His vision of the ultimate questions is a synthesis of Buddhism (reincarnation and nirvana), Mayan mythology (Xibalba, the fountain of youth), and Christianity (Genesis).

However, individual religions do not play a significant role in the film. The director uses religious symbols and names only to talk about something that essentially has no name – nameless entities that, depending on the cultural context, are hidden under different signs. It is precisely because of this – because of its universality and timelessness – that Darren Aronofsky’s work gains the flavor of an exceptional film. One that leaves a lasting mark on our consciousness and, thanks to the suggestiveness of its message, opens our eyes to many issues.

Words: Milosz Drewniak



We're movie lovers who write for other movie lovers!

See other posts from this author >>>