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Who would expect a film starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn to be one of the best religious films ever made? Released this past summer, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life won the coveted Palme d'Or award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival in May and is arguably a masterpiece in dealing with the question of the meaning of life.
The Tree of Life centers on a Texas family with three sons. It is set in the 1950s, 1960s, and the present. Sean Penn, who has few lines, plays the oldest son, Jack, in the present. Brad Pitt plays Mr. O'Brien, the father.
The film opens with Job 38:4, "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?" The mother, played by Jessica Chastain, declares in an opening voiceover that there are two ways of life, the way of nature, which is both beautiful and harsh, and the way of grace, which is longsuffering, forgiving, and loving. In voiceover, the main characters often address God in the second person.
The death of the middle son at age 19 sets the drama in motion, and the resulting grief of the mother and Jack serves as bookends for the main section of the film. In the first bookend, Mrs. O'Brien encounters the absence of God in her son's death; and the older Jack, successful but pensive, wanders in steel and glass skyscrapers, as well as in a symbolic wilderness, haunted by his brother's death and the memory of their life together as boys.
The film then moves to the largest possible canvas—the universe. Malick serves up stunning images suggesting the Big Bang, followed by deep space, stars, galaxies, and the earth. In a voiceover, Mrs. O'Brien, in her grief, asks, "What are we to you?" reminiscent of Psalm 8:4, "What is man, that thou art mindful of him?" We see the early earth with volcanic eruptions, followed by the appearance of living cells, marine life, dinosaurs, and an asteroid impact. (One skeptical viewer said that the film was the most persuasive argument for intelligent design he had ever seen. If so, it's through art more than argument.)
The film returns to the mother, showing her being courted by Mr. O'Brien, followed by their marriage and the birth of the first son, Jack, who soon must deal with the arrival of a rival brother.
This longest section is set in the 1950s. Interspersed with idyllic scenes, which are achingly beautiful, a neighbor boy drowns, another is injured in a fire (which is not directly shown), a sermon is delivered about the sufferings of Job, the parents fight, Jack and neighborhood boys experiment with mischievousness and cruelty, and Jack flirts with meanness and kindness.
The family experiences both the genuine affection and the outbursts of a father frustrated by earlier failings. He warns Jack not to get "sidetracked" and to be tough in order to "get ahead." He essentially proposes the survival of the fittest, the way of nature, as opposed to the mother's "way of grace."
In the second bookend, the mother has to reconcile herself to the loss of her son, and Jack to the loss of his brother and his felt loss of grace. The film, like the Book of Job, does not answer the hard questions directly, but allows the viewer to ponder them as it moves toward reconciliation in its final act, which is spiritual and highly symbolic.
Admittedly a difficult film to fully grasp on the first viewing, The Tree of Life, like all fine art, rewards multiple viewings. But reactions have been mixed. Some moviegoers have gotten up and walked out, saying, "What was that about?" If you want to see a movie with a straightforward storyline, skip The Tree of Life. But if you are willing to make the effort to take in a more complex cinematic experience that contemplates the mystery of existence, suffering, and love, you may find The Tree of Life a hauntingly beautiful work of art in the service of ultimate questions. •
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