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The Tree of Life

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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James of the Marche: Meet one of the fathers of the modern pawnshop! 
<p>James was born in the Marche of Ancona, in central Italy along the Adriatic Sea. After earning doctorates in canon and civil law at the University of Perugia, he joined the Friars Minor and began a very austere life. He fasted nine months of the year; he slept three hours a night. St. Bernardine of Siena told him to moderate his penances. </p><p>James studied theology with St. John of Capistrano. Ordained in 1420, James began a preaching career that took him all over Italy and through 13 Central and Eastern European countries. This extremely popular preacher converted many people (250,000 at one estimate) and helped spread devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus. His sermons prompted numerous Catholics to reform their lives and many men joined the Franciscans under his influence. </p><p>With John of Capistrano, Albert of Sarteano and Bernardine of Siena, James is considered one of the "four pillars" of the Observant movement among the Franciscans. These friars became known especially for their preaching. </p><p>To combat extremely high interest rates, James established <i>montes pietatis</i> (literally, mountains of charity)--nonprofit credit organizations that lent money at very low rates on pawned objects. </p><p>Not everyone was happy with the work James did. Twice assassins lost their nerve when they came face to face with him. James died in 1476 and was canonized in 1726.</p> American Catholic Blog Let us never tire of seeking the Lord—of letting ourselves be sought by him—of tending over our relationship with him in silence and prayerful listening. Let us keep our gaze fixed on him, the center of time and history; let us make room for his presence within us.


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