James Martin, S.J.June 06, 2011

Here's a confession: I was biased when I saw Terrence Malick’s astonishing new film “The Tree of Life.”  Very biased. 

For one thing, I am an enormous fan of (I’ll use the word since it fits) the director’s oeuvre.  One of the first things I read about Malick, a somewhat private polymath, was a description of the cinematography in one of his first films, “Days of Heaven” (1978).  Malick elected to shoot most of the outdoor scenes lit only by the glow of the “magic hour,” the golden-orange time immediately before sunset. Many scenes from that film, about poor farmers in the early part of the 20th century, seem dipped in honey.  The lighting casts an elegiac tone over the story, much as fading sunlight can make one wistful or melancholic at the close of day.  For some reason I found that technique utterly fascinating, and since then, whenever I am outdoors during those hours, I think of the director and remember "Days of Heaven."  In a sense, he taught me to see that time in a new way.

Twenty years after “Heaven,” Malick released “The Thin Red Line,” based on the James Jones novel about fighting men in the Pacific theater during World War II, which was, despite the subject materially, equally sublime.  If a film about the horros of war can be said to be “beautiful,” this one was.  And “The New World” (2005), about John Smith and Pocahontas (the real ones, not the Disney characters), is a magnificent work of art that excels in blending of nature and music, and is a film to which I return to over and over.

More bias about his latest work: I’m pretty religious (an understatement) and had read that “The Tree of Life” tackled what are sometimes ominously called “Big Questions” about religion.

But I was unprepared for the power of the film, which is like living inside a prayer.

Essentially, the film works on (at least) two levels: as a story and as a meditation.  The story, told elliptically, is rather simple.  An average couple in Waco, Texas in the 1950s has three boys, who grow up.  The father (Brad Pitt) is gradually revealed as a severe disciplinarian bordering on abusive parent; the mother (Jessica Chastain) is, throughout the movie, a gentling force.  (As Roger Ebert mentioned in his incisive review, however, few of the father’s harsh actions would have seemed odd for that time or place; nor does his wife protest much.) 

Near the beginning of the film, we hear the wife confiding a lesson her mother had taught her.  Like many of the voiceovers, it is offered in whispery tones, which makes you feel you are eavesdropping on someone’s soul.  The two opposing ways of life, says Mother, are “the way of nature” and the “way of grace.”  The father (Pitt, that is) would seem to represent nature (striving, pushing, grasping) and the mother grace (accepting, appreciating, rejoicing.)  Later (or, more accurately, at times), Sean Penn appears as one of the sons, now an adult contemplating his childhood and wondering over his future.

Frankly, I’d rather not give away too much more about the plot, which is, as I’ve said, revealed elliptically, impressionistically.  Perhaps too elliptically: one friend asked a cogent question about continuity that was resolved only when I spoke with someone who had, by chance, worked on the film.  Funny enough, I’m something of a literalist myself when it comes to books or films: I like things presented in sequence.  But once I gave myself over to Malick’s vision, as one would to a poem or a symphony or a painting, or a prayer, it was perfectly logical.  And whose prayer isn't elliptical at times?  Whose meditations are always linear?

But I’d rather not talk too much about the plot anyway; I’d rather talk about the film as a meditation.

Here it succeeds brilliantly, perhaps better than any other film I can remember.  Malick dares to ask large questions, and ask them outright, straightforwardly, in voiceovers that take the form of inner monologues.  Or, more accurately, take the form of prayer: we often see people kneeling.  Ironically, while the sequence of the family’s life may seem roundabout, the questions are decidedly not.  They are both clear and distinct, to quote Descartes, like the kinds of questions that many believers have. And they are addressed clearly and distinctly to God: “Who are you?”  “Do you care about us?”  And my favorite, unexpected, question, when something tragic happens in the boys’ world, for which the oldest boy (Hunter McCracken) holds God responsible: “Why should I be good if you aren’t?”

Malick strives to answers these questions throughout the entire film, but particularly in his (now well known) sequence that attempts to illustrate nothing less than the creation of the universe.  The Book of Job is quoted on a title card at the beginning of the movie: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” God asks of Job, the man who is known for his suffering but who should be known for his questioning. Malick implicitly asks us too, as we see, literally, those foundations being made, in a bravura series that moves from the dawn of Creation to, touchingly, the birth of the children in Waco.  It is a meditation on the universal and the particular, as philosophers like to say. (See John Anderson’s sensitive review in America for his take on this sequence.)

“Tree” also celebrates the Ignatian (and Buddhist and Christian and human) goal of awareness.  The film asks us to be awake.  Attentive.  Alive.  Malick helps us see the beauty in the everyday.  And oh is it beautiful!  An infant’s face pressed tightly against a mother’s body.  Trees.  A toddler taking his first steps on a front lawn while holding his father’s hands.  Boys running through the tall summer grass.  Soap bubbles.  Even a passing truck spraying the neighborhood with a noxious cloud of DDT, and in which the children dance delightedly, seems sublime.  Malick’s film says: Look.

When I prayed about the film the next day, I remembered last year's “Of Gods and Men,” about the martyred monks of Our Lady of Atlas monastery in Algeria.  How similar, and how different, they are.  The real-life French Trappists in North Africa in the 1990s struggled with some slightly different Big Questions: “What does God want us to do?” “Is martyrdom my future?”  At the same time, they pondered some of the same questions that the fictional boys in 1950s Waco were asking that same God: “Do you care about us?” 

Likewise, both “Of Gods and Men” and “Tree of Life” turn our gaze to small things of great and overlooked beauty: in one film, the waving grass, a reaching tree, a squalling baby; in the other, a monk tending a sick child; another monk pouring wine for his brothers; the communal singing of the psalms.   Swaths of classical music are used to great effect by both directors.  In the case of “Gods” the director Xavier Beauvois offers “Swan Lake” as an accompaniment to a sort of monastic Last Supper.  In the case of “Tree,” almost every scene is scored with a piece from Brahms, Mahler, Berlioz, or my favorite selection (which Malick used in his “New World”) Smetana’s haunting “Moldau.”  Both movies asked us to see.  And hear.

But “Tree” differs from “Gods.”  Ironically, the film about a noisy family has less talking than a film about monks who live a life of silence.  The mother in “The Tree of Life” barely speaks at all, though she is perhaps the most influential character in her sons’s life.  (Her silence reminded me of St. Francis of Assisi's dictum: "Preach the Gospel always; use words when necessary.") And Malick's film features more scenes that are strictly visual, wordless.  As the modernist poets said, it shows rather than tells.  Here is another irony: the abbot of the Trappist monastery, by contrast, talks a great deal, as do his brother monks.  The active life is presented contemplatively by Malick; the contemplative life is presented actively by Beauvois.

Also different are the respective presentations of the afterlife.  The final scene of “Of Gods and Men” shows the soon-to-be-martyred monks marching resolutely to their terrible fate.  Not only are their deaths not shown onscreen, any question of heaven is left hanging.  (Of course they’re saints, most viewers will think, but we do not see them after their earthly lives have ended.)  Malick, on the other hand, does not quail from offering his vision of heaven: a powerful one that also acknowledges the different ages of people we will meet in the "fullness of time."  Just the other day, in fact, I wondered aloud if a friend who, 30 years ago, died at 21 will be that age when we meet in heaven.  Malick gives us an answer of sorts in his final, mystical vision.

Another small difference.  “Of Gods and Men” may require some in-depth knowledge of Christianity—the notion of sacrifice, of contemplative prayer and the monastic life itself.  (It may be hard to understand why the monks stay if you know nothing about the vow of obedience.)  “Tree of Life,” on the other hand, can be seen by anyone who wonders about God. 

The two may appeal to different types of believers, seekers, and doubters.  The literalist believer may like “Gods” for its linear storyline.  The dreamy seeker may prefer “Tree” for its open-ended embrace of questions.  Or given the power of these two films, perhaps just the opposite is true.

These are the only two movies in the last year that forced me to pray about them.  Both, I think, are masterpieces, and will—or should—last as long as the cinema does.  Or as long as anyone asks questions about God.

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Carolyn Disco
10 years 3 months ago
I just saw Of Gods and Men last evening, and the questions posed were indeed profound. A masterpiece.

Thank you for leading me to The Tree of Life. As a mixture of believer, seeker and doubter, depending on the flow of life and other mysteries, I look forward to pondering its impact.

In the end, what matters is the affirmation of life, in which by faith  we sense we are loved by God unconditionally.

C Walter Mattingly
9 years 8 months ago
"They also serve who only stand and wait."
You do far more than that.
bro. Augustine Rohde
9 years 3 months ago
I saw the movie last year after a co-worker suggested it. I had read the review above prior, and had hoped, since I am a Franciscan, would have some connection to St. Bonaventures: Tree of Life. I don't think the two are very much alike. I do agree with Fr. Martin's suggestion re: it being seen by devout as well as searchers as being meaningful. My co-worker & I discussed it then, and again just today. I can see the Christian aspects of struggle with the characters, esp. the older son looking back and even asking how/if he had some role in his brother's death. God showing him all these things which he had made. I could resonate with the 'pulse' as I told my co-worker, as a vision of what I at times experience of contemplation/sense of God at prayer. Yet I agree that it is very lengthy, grandeous (as the scene of dinosaurs even being able to have compassion) It does add to ones modern day sense that pets can/do replace people as more sensative.

Today my co-worker stated that it is the essense of Christianity. However, she could not answer me as to why. It does reflect the need for one to be reflective/prayerful, but to say it is overtly Christian... it escapes me.
david power
10 years 3 months ago
Saw it saturday night.Interesting movie.
It is slated by all my friends who think that it is like a national geographic documentary.
I am glad I saw it and thought the main actor(the eldest son) was very good.
As a prayer it is a far cry from Augustine but I can see the spiritual vein of the movie.
Brad Pitt was solid.Sean Penn's character could have been more developed ,perhaps taking up 20 mins of burning lava scenes.
The whole ethereal aspect of the mother was way overdone.
I think Habemus Papam works better as a movie.
Still between a tomatoe and a lettuce I would give it a tomatoe.
Leslie Rabbitt
10 years 3 months ago
Lovely commentary and I cannot wait to see the film if only to restore my faith in cinema after having only recently watched the DVD of The Black Swan - a film in which there is no redemption offered for anyone.
ed gleason
10 years 3 months ago
We went tonigh to see itt...As a fifties guy with five sons, thoughts of a do over kept flashing on me. Teilhard de Chardin would have liked it too.
10 years 3 months ago
Just imagine.....three spiritually profound movies in a short time span!  I'm looking forward to seeing "Tree of Life" and appreciate your review, Fr. Jim.  That movie and "Of Gods and Men" and "There Be Dragons" provide much fodder for thought and prayer.  I ponder them from the perspective of an aging person.  I agree with the actress, Bette Davis, who said that aging isn't for sissies.  It's tough, but there are many graces, too. 

In July, I'll celebrate my 75th birthday, a milestone.  Ten years ago I couldn't have imagined living this long having heart disease and a poor prognosis and being close to non-functional.  Each year my condition has improved so that I can function fairly well.  The message to me is that God has more work for me to do here on earth.  I've learned that life is a humbling process especially for arrogant high achievers like me.  The ego becomes less important;  belief in the redemtive power of suffering in communion with Christ is of paramount importance.   I want so badly to die in peace, reconciled with those I have harmed and who have harmed me.  But, I learned of my powerlessness while trying to reconcile with a friend who has made that peace impossible. 

Like the monks in "Of God's and Men" , one prays to have the strength and courage to do God's will.  In "There Be Dragons" are lessons in suffering, forgiveness and the darkness (dragons) that exist in all of us and are a continual calling for mutual understanding and compassion.    I look forward to the lessons of "Tree of Life"!
Toni Urquhart
10 years 3 months ago
''But 'Tree' differs from 'Gods.'  Ironically, the film about a noisy family has less talking than a film about monks who take a vow of silence.''

Fr Jim, please accept a (fussy) correction: Your friend Thomas Merton and the Trappist monks portrayed in 'Gods' never took a vow of silence. ''Trappist monks and nuns have a reputation of being silent persons. Somehow this impression, which has a certain foundation in reality, has led to the idea that they take a vow of silence, which has never been the case. [...] They promise ''conversion,'' that is, fidelity to monastic life, a part of which is the discipline of maintaining an atmosphere of silence [...].''

Source: http://www.ocso.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=53&Itemid=63&lang=en
Kathryn Edmondson
10 years 3 months ago
It is wonderful to read such a review given the appalling low level of comentary about so many things which afflicts the developed world.  Even more wonderful and hope giving to know that film makers are telling stories that are worth the resources taken from the earth for their telling.   I appreciated in Gods and Men the ordinariness that invaded the extraordinary  situation and the tone of the whole film.  Even matrydom comes to us while the earth keeps to its seasons.  There were no clanging bells or mystic vistations but, the most important thing......  transforming faith.
Wendell Bell
10 years 3 months ago
Could I respectfully ask that this review be updated in a month or two-to address Tree of Life's coda, and Father Martin's view of that? (I understand not doing it now, but, after a seemly interval, I would think your commentary would aid understanding.)

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