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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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Gerard of Lunel: Gerard, born into a noble family in southern France, showed an early inclination to piety—so much so that he received the habit of the Third Order of St. Francis at the age of five. When he was 18, Gerard and his brother, Effrenaud, hid themselves in a cave on the banks of a river and began two years of living as hermits. Both brothers then decided to go on a pilgrimage, in part to discourage the many visitors to the hermitage who had heard of their reputation for holiness. Making their way to Rome on foot, they spent two years there, visiting its many famous churches and shrines. 
<p>They intended to continue to Jerusalem, but Gerard collapsed on the way. While his brother went to seek help, he left Gerard in a simple cottage near Montesanto, Italy, but Gerard expired before his brother's return. </p><p>Many miracles are said to have taken place at Gerard's tomb, making it a favorite place of pilgrimage. People who were afflicted with headaches or subject to epilepsy experienced special relief through his intercession. The city of Montesanto has long venerated Blessed Gerard as its principal patron. He is sometimes known as Gery, Gerius or Roger of Lunel.</p> American Catholic Blog It is an astonishing truth that God made human beings in his image. An immortal, rational, free and loving God made beings who have immortal souls and who are rational, free, and made to love and to be loved. Human life is sacred because it specifically reflects the nature of the divine.

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