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Rev. James Martin, S.J.

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Spiritual Reflections on 'The Tree of Life'

Posted: 06/06/11 07:09 PM ET

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 very first things I read about Malick, a somewhat private polymath, was about the cinematography in one of his first films, "Days of Heaven" (1978). Malick elected to film most of the outdoor scenes lit only by the glow of the "magic hour," that golden-orange time immediately before sunset. Many of the 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 film, much as fading sunlight can make one wistful or melancholic at the close of day. For some reason that technique I found 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 terrors 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, which excels in blending of nature and music, and is a film to which I return over and over.

More bias about his latest work: I'm pretty religious (an understatement) and knew 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 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. Like many of the voiceovers, it is done in whispery tones, which gives the impression of 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 movies: I like things presented in sequence. But once I gave myself over to Malick's film, 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 about the plot; 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 at the beginning on a title card: "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?" as God asked 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. Alive. Attentive. 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 of 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 in Algeria. How similar, and how different, they are. The real-life French Trappists in North African 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 take a vow 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. (She 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 films' 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, 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 died at age 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's 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.

This post first appeared on the group blog "In All Things" at America Magazine.