The Tree of Life
By Sr. Rose Pacatte, F.S.P.
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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