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ON FAITH & MEDIA View Comments

The Tree of Life

By
Sr. Rose Pacatte, F.S.P.
Source: AmericanCatholic.org

When director/writer Terrence Malick’s new film opens we hear the quiet voice of 1950’s wife and mother Mrs. Obrien (Jessica Chastain): “The nuns always taught us that there is the way of nature and the way of grace; it is up to us to choose.”

Actually, it’s not that simple, as we discern during the roll out of Malick’s cinematic epic overflowing with color, sights, sounds, and realize we are witnessing the artist’s rendition of God’s creative act. We move through the ages and see aggression played out between dinosaurs. Then we are with the O’Brien’s in a small Texas town where their three sons are born, baptized and confirmed in their parish church.

Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) is an inventor, disappointed that his creations do not succeed. He takes out his frustrations on his wife and children, especially Jack (Hunter McCracken as a child; Sean Penn later). Mrs. O’Brien is kind and protective of her children.

The threads the film weaves together often comes in pairs: nature and grace; nature and nurture; stern, intimidating father and sweet, strong mother; the astonishing beauty of God’s creation entwined with cement and steel, creations of humans.

We realize that the tapestry shows how twisted life can be – and that grace builds on nature if we nurture it. Scriptural allusions and motifs are abundant. Think the Garden of Eden and the river that ran through it, the narrow gate, and life after death.

To me, the film seemed deeply personal, almost autobiographical, though the production notes provided to film critics do not mention this. I felt the tense family dynamic, I could feel the hot, dry summer breezes that blew through the home in days before air conditioning; I, too, wandered the streets in the summer with my siblings and friends, looking for something to do.

“The Tree of Life” is a man’s story, however, and it seemed a man’s world. I felt like an onlooker, just as I did when I tried to figure out the behavior and thinking of my own three brothers in the 1950s.

“The Tree of Life” is about mystery and about grace, about certainty and the questions, and about the complexity of human freedom in relation to the Creator, to creation, and to one another.

You always have to take your time with a Terrence Malick film, and he has only made five in his forty-year career. If he finds an image that attracts him, he stays with it, and seems unable to edit it out. He asks us to marvel with him, as he did in “The Thin Red Line” (1998; a film about World War II), or more recently “The New World” (2005): Who are we to You, God? Who are you to us? What does this life, this creation mean?

“The Tree of Life” requires intentionality on the part of the audience: this is a film you choose because you are ready to slow down and journey with the filmmaker, to find God in the darkness of the theater and let the light of grace wash over you. This is a film that commands a big screen because the ideas and images – and the questions - are so huge.


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Joachim and Anne: In the Scriptures, Matthew and Luke furnish a legal family history of Jesus, tracing ancestry to show that Jesus is the culmination of great promises. Not only is his mother’s family neglected, we also know nothing factual about them except that they existed. Even the names <i>Joachim</i> and <i>Anne</i> come from a legendary source written more than a century after Jesus died. 
<p>The heroism and holiness of these people, however, is inferred from the whole family atmosphere around Mary in the Scriptures. Whether we rely on the legends about Mary’s childhood or make guesses from the information in the Bible, we see in her a fulfillment of many generations of prayerful persons, herself steeped in the religious traditions of her people. </p><p>The strong character of Mary in making decisions, her continuous practice of prayer, her devotion to the laws of her faith, her steadiness at moments of crisis, and her devotion to her relatives—all indicate a close-knit, loving family that looked forward to the next generation even while retaining the best of the past. </p><p>Joachim and Anne—whether these are their real names or not—represent that entire quiet series of generations who faithfully perform their duties, practice their faith and establish an atmosphere for the coming of the Messiah, but remain obscure.</p> American Catholic Blog Don’t pretend to be a saint—intend to be one. Bend your knees but never your morals.

 
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