Monday, May 16, 2011

The Coming of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life

The big moment at Cannes has come and gone, the showing of Terrence Malick's long-awaited, the Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, and Sean Penn. The film was due out a year ago, and the talk then was that it would premiere at Cannes, which the attending producers admitted was their goal as well. For a brief survey of Malick's career and thought, see my overview piece (

Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is certainly the most unusual film you are ever going to see or, perhaps, for that matter, that has ever been made. It reaches to do things that no other film as ever tried, save perhaps for someone like Andrei Tarkovsky. And it is also a profound venture of religious/theological vision, with emphasis on the rudiments of vision, meaning very specifically the seeing part, for that is what happens in this film. Malick strives to convey what it is like as experience to see a world that is infused with light everywhere as a staggering kind of beauty--from the start of creation itself to the very present now. And the hearing part, as with the Word, is there as well with a resplendent score largely consisting of rapturous liturgical music of various kinds, though the music also swings to plumb the agony of loss.

Its epigraph is from Job, asking where any one was when the morning stars sang for joy, and that is exactly what much of the film tries to capture, including fifteen gorgeous minutes of cosmic history. And there are, especially in the opening section, a trainload of voiceover biblical reference, though I doubt if the Cannes audience, a pretty thoroughly secular assembly, noted them as such. And again it is, frankly, stunning--all of it--even when it turns dark in exploring what Malick calls "nature," where it explores the religious and psychological legacy of cruelty and asks hard, Job-like questions. Foremost, though, is the delineation of what Malick labels "grace," an exultant take on Pauline contemplations on the Love that cast the world into being and "shines" still in all that is, radiant and enrapturing.

Needless to say, this sort of thing took the Cannes bunch by surprise. At the press conference with cast (Pitt and Chastain) and crew (Malick was typically absent, his last interview in print in the 1970s), one questioner asked, barely concealing her incredulity, if Malick actually believed in God. Pitt fielded the question, rather bravely, suggesting that Malick was certainly "spiritual" and "universal." True enough, though it is akin to adequately defining a lizard by saying it is a reptile. Pitt admitted as well that he had had many theological discussions with Malick, though was not apparently convinced by Malick's religious views (he did not elaborate). In any case, what we end up with a film that is not only one of a kind but one that moves and dazzles in every frame for its full two hours and fifteen minutes.

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