The Tree of Life
‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you’ wrote the American poet Maya Angelou. If this is true, director Terence Malick has clearly been suffering a great deal over the many years it has taken to see his most intimate and profound film, The Tree of Life, finally released.
Awarded the Palm d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Tree of Life is a highly anticipated film from a highly respected director. In a career spanning four decades, the reclusive auteur has managed to make only four other films. Tree of Life is his fifth. In an era where endless sequels are conveyor-belted into multiplex cinemas, Tree of Life stands out against the big studio mantra of ‘quantity over quality’.
Seen with elegiac wonder through the eyes of a middle-aged architect (Sean Penn) the film takes us back to his childhood in the 1950s when he and his brothers struggled to cope with his authoritarian father (Brad Pitt) and gentle mother (Jessica Chastain). His relationship with his father and the effect it had on his brother are what consume him in the present – a present in which his work as an architect is symbolic of how boxed in he has become. To sum it up that simplistically though would be like describing Citizen Kane as a film about the newspaper business.
Instead, this film feels as though Malick read the book of Job and thought, ‘Exactly how could I capture that awe which God inspires when he finally talks to Job?’ Tree of Life opens with the Bible passage from Job 38: 4,7: ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?’ In answer to Penn’s questions about his childhood and his life, Malick, it seems, sees him as modern-day Job who needs to experience the majesty of God’s creation.
In taking this journey, Tree of Life is one of the most ambitious films since 2001: A Space Odyssey. Not only do we return to Penn’s childhood but we are also present at the very birth of the universe. We watch as stars flame into life, as dust gathers to form planets, as dinosaurs walk the Earth. All about is an abundance of creation, of life in all its many splendours – represented symbolically throughout by trees: from the one Pitt plants in his garden and the first one to grow on Earth, to the last one seen in heaven.
Malick’s deep love of the natural world has always been evident, whether in the glowing plains of Badlands or Days of Heaven, or in the stark contrast between war and nature in The Thin Red Line. But in Tree of Life, the focus of that love is given its very sublime origin – to the one who created it.
Right at the beginning, Penn’s mother offers the question which lies at the heart of Tree of Life. She asks, ‘Do you choose the way of nature or the way of grace? Grace doesn’t try to please itself. It accepts injuries and insults. Nature only wants to please itself; to have its own way.’
In more familiar terms it represents the battle between the flesh and the spirit. Within the film it is Penn’s father who represents ‘nature’ while his mother is ‘grace’. In so many ways, they channel the Old Testament God of the law and the New Testament God of grace. And standing in front of Penn, as he wrestles with that choice, is the full scope of life and death in all its humbling glory.
Watching Tree of Life is like being taken back to a time when films embraced the scope which their art afforded them. It may even seem a little disorientating at times because we’ve become so used to being force-fed visual clues or occasional bursts of excitement to avoid boredom setting in. Think of a Dr Seuss poem versus T S Eliot’s The Waste Land. Like the latter poem, there are profound truths to be experienced in Tree of Life if you don’t let its length or imagery overwhelm you.
Think also of a Bach chamber piece, picture yourself in front of a Renaissance masterpiece and you start to appreciate the company which Tree of Life aspires to keep. Not because it may be that timeless (although you never know) but because it’s trying to transcend itself – to communicate a deeper truth which rises beyond mere scenes, or music, or pieces of dialogue. It succeeds in being so very much more than the sum of its parts.
Tree of Life is a soaring hymn of a film filled with grand themes and driven by a bold artistic vision. At its heart are questions about the very meaning of life, not merely for plants and animals, but humans and our relationship to each other. Malick raises the questions while presenting his findings, as God did with Job.
Some critics have bemoaned the lack of concrete answers, but anything more explicit would have missed the point. Malick is Kubrick’s heir in many ways – but while both share a great love of storytelling, Malick also has a vibrant spiritual heart.