Climbing the Tree of Life (movie)

Posted: July 12, 2011 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , ,

The 2011 film, Tree of Life, made a powerful showing at the Cannes Film Festival, even though it evoked widely differing reactions. The Terrence Malick film features Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain. But for my money the new child actors should have received top honors. They played their parts with a remarkable believability.

If you are looking for a linear narrative plot, this movie is not for you. Save your eight bucks and spend your two hours elsewhere. But if you are interested in how memory, cosmology, suffering, death, life, family, parenting, grief and prayer all intersect, you might consider getting a large popcorn and settling in.

First of all, Malick gives us a big, fat hint at the beginning. Right there, as a kind of foreword, he flashes up a quote from the Book of Job, the final section in which the Lord answer’s Job’s complaint about his suffering from the whirlwind: “Where were you when I established the foundations of the world?” Malick intends to answer that, insofar as anyone can. And the way he attempts to do so is striking.

In this retrospective in which a middle aged man recalls his childhood in Texas, he recalls a dreamy mixture of simple pleasures and heart-wrenching struggle, mostly with the authority of his father. The agony of life which the family endures is the death of one of their sons. And the way the film invites us to travel to a new perspective is an interesting one. It actually is cinema’s attempt to do in its medium what Job originally did in his.

We are catapulted through time, going back to the beginning of things, of an exploding universe, solidifying stars and steaming planets, and the beginning of life and its unfolding  through extremely long periods of time. All of this massive sense of time and unimaginable expanse of space wraps around this one little family and their suffering. We are to see their, our, experience through a much different lens, the bird’s eye lens of enormous creation. Where were you, tiny limited one, when I created everything? The family, especially the mystic-leaning mother, finds a way for their grief and Job’s question to ascend to the heights and boundaries of anyone’s understanding and surrender her beloved unto the great mystery.

Malick gives us other leads, cues that take us on our way. Throughout the film different characters whisper questions to what could be nothing other than their God. So the entire story is peppered with prayer, often accompanied by a soundtrack that includes haunting choral strains of an Agnus Dei (Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us …).

The end of the matter is wonder as the estranged and separated, suffering and struggling find their way to the beautiful wilderness in which everything returns to the oneness from which it has come in the first place. All the rivers run to the sea but the sea is not full. Everything belongs to and is connected to everything else, one reality, one unity. And there couldn’t be another better title than one based on the solitary symbol present in the beginning and end of the Biblical story, the Tree of Life that is for the healing of the nations.

This is a profoundly religious film that has embraced an ambitious goal. Whether or not it approached the profundity of Job is another question to be answered, but the ambitious goal can only be described as laudable.

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Comments
  1. lynelle says:

    Ha ha! Thanks for seeing this movie and helping the rest of us linear-thinkers sort it all out! Maybe we all need to learn to abandon linear thinking a bit more often…

  2. Anne says:

    Thank you for sharing your blog. Well done! You make the movie sound better than what I experienced. Indeed the message is profound, but my preference leans toward more subtle symbolism to challenge the intelect. Perhaps I am too pragmatic, but I felt the film tried too hard to be art. Spot on about the young actors’ performances they were all outstanding.

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