Film and Theology: The many faces “Martha Marcy May Marlene”

Family. Relationships. Pain. Illness. Memories.

Abuses. Addictions. Attachments. 

Violence. Drugs. Homelessness. 

Dream. Memories. Realities.

Past. Histories. Identities.

Where do the lost souls go? 

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene” tells the story of how a religious cult can became a safe haven for the lost souls when they were abandoned by their family, running away from abuse or just can’t fit into the materialistic world order.  The film follows Martha/Marcy May, wonderfully played by Elizabeth Olson, who has become one of the leaders of this community as she escape from the cult, reality and memories get intermingled throughout the rest of the story.

(spoilers alert) 

The film opens as the members of the cult working enthusiastically in the garden, planting vegetables, wearing plain clothes and everything is shared in common as long as it fits.  It seems like an utopia and the dream of hippies where one can be self-sustainable and the community is warm and welcoming.  A place that’s too good to be true.  The next scene shows a male only dinner table while the the women wait at the door steps until the men are done.  Which triggers the viewers to notice this community has a unique set of rules that’s not conventional.  At the break of light, we see Marcy May escaping into the woods without any reason or explanation given.  It is only when she got into town and contacted her sister Lucy, that we hears her real name Martha for the first time.

The film juxtaposes and constantly intermingle between the new life that Martha will be living with Lucy and her husband Ted in their middle class cottage home, and the memories and teachings from her once trusted cult leader Patrick presenting another way of living, where the two sides of conflicting values constantly collide.

Elizabeth-Olsen-in-Martha-Marcy-May-MarleneOn the one hand, Lucy and Ted’s bourgeois family where Ted is an aspiring architect, having everything that one would want in life, a cottage home with a backyard lake, boats, cars, a baby waiting to be born, a couple that is living the America Dream.  However, they are bounded by rules of the society that is drying up their passion for life and each other except for work and climbing up the social ladder.  Their only vacation time was the two weeks out of the year to stay at the cottage to get away from work. When Martha swim naked in the lake, she felt shameless to show her body and be free with the nature, but was immediately stopped as it is not “legal” and it was not normal for people to act this way.  When she tries to put her legs onto the kitchen counter, was scorned immediately again as being unsanitary.  When Lucy and Ted have sex in their bedroom, Martha will go onto their bed and listens.  Martha was asked when she was going to get a job and make a living when things are getting bad and Ted as losing his patience.  She simply answers, “One do not need to pursue material and possession to be worthy.  One can simply exist.”  When restricted by endless laws and boundaries, one wonders what does “normal” mean?  Who sets the rules around a society?

A question on the value of the capitalism system that is being asked world wide comes in, shoved into the audience’s face.

What is the alternative?

martha_marcy_may_marlene03As Martha is going on her daily routines, the actions constantly triggers her experiences in the cult, her life as Marcy May, giving the audience a use to unravel the true face of the abusive cult.  The cult is a neat little community where Martha can feel safe and supportive.  They will grow their own garden, cook their own food, write little songs to each other, sharing clothes and beds together, except there will be secret trips that some will make into town in the middle of the night.  She was given a new identity, Marcy May, right away upon arrival by Patrick, the leader, so that her past, her history, her hurt can be forgotten, start anew.

Which is like the church, we are given a new identity as the children of God, all our sins are forgotten, everything is shared in common like the early churches.  Everything was going well until Patrick asked Marcy May to let her guards down and share more with everyone.  That night, she was drugged and raped as an entrance ritual to the community where it was seen as a blessing.  “I will give anything to get my first time again” said Zoe, one of Marcy May’s closest friend in the cult.  A new set of rule bounds the community in the cult, a new set of normal overrides their old ways of living.

Marcy May became one of the teachers and leaders in the community, where she went through the process of preparing the drugsMartha-Marcy-May-Marlene--007 for newcomers, as well as going on late night missions which is going into other people’s home to take valuables so that their community can live on.

It was until there as a killing in one of these robbery that Marcy May begin to realize the ugly truth about this cult and the false teaching and way of life they are living on.  When she thought they were being self-sustainable, living by their own efforts, it was robbery and thievery that they rely on.  When she thought the sins and abuse of the past is far away, new recruits are being drugged and orgy of lust are common happenings.  It was this awakening that cause her to escape and leave.


The film force the audience to take a hard look at the what the world is faced with this day.  With youth unemployment being the highest it has ever been since the Great Depression, with Spain at over 40%, Greece over 30%, and Canada at 17.2%, the next generation have to face the reality that just getting an university degree alone is not enough to get a job.  With this realization, 1 in 5 youth in Canada are dropped out of university after their first year.

austerity protests

Austerity. Protests. Riots. Broken American Dreams. Wars. Guns. Violences. Family slaughters.

Searching for alternatives, for living, mentally and spiritually.  Looking for alternatives only finding a void.


Studies from the Globe and Mail stated that over 30% youth will possibly suffer from mental illness or substance abuse compared to 16% of the general population.  The Census of Canada show that suicide accounts for 24% of death amongst youth aged 15 to 24 years old, the second leading cause of death just after car accidents as the leading cause.  One wonders what the church is doing to give spiritual support for the next generation of youth.  Will we turn a blind eye on their suffering and only question their inability to follow the social norm of getting a job and build a family, or get into their shoes and feel their suffering?

The cult being a religious community, one is forced to ask how it compares to the church as a whole.  A new set of rituals, rules, values are incepted into teachings, an entirely new environment is introduced, a set of language and jargons that only members within the community will understand.  There are actions and missions that church or the religious right legitimized under the name of God, like the so-called righteous war with the axis of evil which many see it as interest in oil and building an empire.  It is also a reason why so many of the new generation of young Christians left church, in the awakening of the disconnection to the reality of life and the values and teachings of the church not matching up.  One begin to question whose interpretation of the Bible was taken to be right?  How did some writings made it into the Bible and not others?  Who gets to say if heaven or hell exists or not? Who gets to say who get saved or not?

The film is also about the many faces of identity that everyone has, just as there are so many roles one has in different settings.  One can be a husband, a wife, a son, a daughter, a friend, an employee, a boss.  One is also the children of God, a sojourner on earth, a pastor, a prophet, a minister, a teacher, a leader, a follower. There are different responsibilities and perspectives for each role, and different mass that one is responsible to look after the best interest to.  How does one balance out each of the identity and the values that makes up each of these faces.  Each time the screen shows a reflection of Martha, whether it was in a mirror, the water surface or other reflective surfaces, the next scene will take the audience into the other life that she was living in, and how those experiences impact her actions and decisions that she takes in the reality.  In the last scene, we see that a member of the cult is following Martha to her new home, where one is reminded that our past, our history, our memories will be be so easily give us up and will follow wherever we go.


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