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ON FAITH & MEDIA View Comments

The Tree of Life

By
John P. McCarthy
Source: Catholic News Service


Jessica Chastain and Tye Sheridan star in Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life."
For his fifth movie, reclusive filmmaker Terrence Malick takes as his subject nothing less than the universe and our place within it. A metaphysical rumination that gives free rein to the writer-director's impressionistic style and background as a philosophy professor, "The Tree of Life" (Fox Searchlight) is consistently beautiful and often moving.

Ultimately, however, the ambitious effort proves vague and unsatisfying because of its overly schematic premise—the juxtaposition of nature and grace—and glancing endorsement of New Age spirituality rather than belief in God.

While not attempting to definitively explain the mystery of existence, Malick is trying to be comprehensive and so hedges his bets by proffering a message of love consistent with Christianity (and many other worldviews) as well as a theologically suspect paean to nature.

The bulk of the film concerns Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain), a Texas couple raising three boys during the 1950s. After opening with a quote from Job and showing the O'Briens in the wake of a tragic loss, Malick sketches a portrait of a strict father who, frustrated professionally, has grown cynical. In opposition, Mrs. O'Brien remains kindly and gentle, a model of maternal sympathy and warmth.

Their eldest son, Jack (played by newcomer Hunter McCracken), bristles at his father's discipline and tests typical coming-of-age boundaries. We also glimpse the grown-up Jack (Sean Penn), a rather morose architect weighed down by an inchoate sense of guilt.

Woven throughout these comparatively traditional passages are abstract sequences depicting the origins of the universe and changes in the natural world. Using extensive special effects for the first time, Malick creates primordial imagery on both the cellular and cosmic levels—celestial fantasias, microscopic mutations, roiling gases, colorful seascapes and desert vistas. There's even a scene featuring dinosaurs. Everything is accompanied by composer Alexandre Desplat's exquisite music, much of it sacred-sounding choral work.

From a theological standpoint, "The Tree of Life" is best described as deeply spiritual but not religious. Although there are numerous references to God—in fact, the characters often address him directly in voice-over narration—Malick's agnosticism appears to win out. He leaves the door open to God, yet seems equally willing to endorse a form of pantheism or animism that puts the natural world and mankind on equal footing.

As in his two most recent films, "The Thin Red Line" and "The New World," Malick's camera repeatedly points upward to the sky. Despite the visual precision and fluidity of "The Tree of Life," we're left wondering exactly what he sees up there.

Although it contains no morally objectionable content, the film's mature subject matter and eschewal of plot and dialogue in favor of mood and imagery make it a better fit for cinephiles than mainstream audiences.

The Catholic News Service classification is A-II—adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13—parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

*****
John P. McCarthy is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.



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Pius X: Pope Pius X is perhaps best remembered for his encouragement of the frequent reception of Holy Communion, especially by children. 
<p>The second of 10 children in a poor Italian family, Joseph Sarto became Pius X at 68, one of the 20th century’s greatest popes. </p><p>Ever mindful of his humble origin, he stated, “I was born poor, I lived poor, I will die poor.” He was embarrassed by some of the pomp of the papal court. “Look how they have dressed me up,” he said in tears to an old friend. To another, “It is a penance to be forced to accept all these practices. They lead me around surrounded by soldiers like Jesus when he was seized in Gethsemani.” </p><p>Interested in politics, he encouraged Italian Catholics to become more politically involved. One of his first papal acts was to end the supposed right of governments to interfere by veto in papal elections—a practice that reduced the freedom of the 1903 conclave which had elected him. </p><p>In 1905, when France renounced its agreement with the Holy See and threatened confiscation of Church property if governmental control of Church affairs were not granted, Pius X courageously rejected the demand. </p><p>While he did not author a famous social encyclical as his predecessor had done, he denounced the ill treatment of indigenous peoples on the plantations of Peru, sent a relief commission to Messina after an earthquake and sheltered refugees at his own expense. </p><p>On the 11th anniversary of his election as pope, Europe was plunged into World War I. Pius had foreseen it, but it killed him. “This is the last affliction the Lord will visit on me. I would gladly give my life to save my poor children from this ghastly scourge.” He died a few weeks after the war began and  was canonized in 1954.</p> American Catholic Blog If we have been saved and sustained by a love so deep that death itself couldn’t destroy it, then that love will see us through whatever darkness we are experiencing in our lives.

 
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