Monday, June 6, 2011

Tree of Life [2011]

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (A-II) Roger Ebert (4 stars) Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert’s review -

Tree of Life (written and directed by Terrence Malick) is a movie that has certainly created a buzz among film critics.  Very long, explicitly religious and rather strange, it has been suggested as being something a “mainstream”/“liberal” “answer” to Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ.  I’m not sure if that description is either particularly correct or particularly useful because I’m not sure if “liberal”/”conservative” are particularly useful terms in talking of a God who _one hopes_ is BIGGER than the _faddish_ peculiarities of American political discourse. 

It would seem to me that the buzz created by this movie is indicative of a legitimate thirst in the artistic/better educated communities for God Talk that goes beyond tendencious slogans like “God hates government sponsored health insurance.” 

That this movie stands _so alone_ -- I’d compare the movie _more_ to Martin Scorcese’s Last Temptation of Christ than to Gibson's Passion of the Christ – only underlines the God Talk "Desert" that we find ourselves in.  And here it must be said that Church leaders both Catholic and Protestant are as much responsible as anybody for sucking water out of religious discourse in contemporary American film. 

In the name of everyone who’s ever actually read Nikos Kazantzakis' book The Last Temptation of Christ or seen Scorcese’s movie, I’d like to declare the obvious: the “last temptation” _wasn’t_ any kind of “sexual experience with Mary Magdalene.” Instead, the Temptation coming between Jesus’ words ON THE CROSS of “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46) and “Into your hands I commend my spirit" (Lk 23:46)  was TO GET OFF THE CROSS (after all, HE WAS GOD, HE COULD HAVE DONE THAT) and lead a normal, simple, happy life. 

The book Last Temptation of Christ and the movie that it inspired were _great_ (and _fun_) explorations of possible back-stories to the Gospel texts that we have, that _could_ give joy/spiritual nourishment to _anyone_ who’s ever really enjoyed “chewing” on God’s Word, that is Scripture.  Instead, both the book and especially the movie were condemned.  The result has been a near 20 year creative drought.  Afterall, why would a mainstream director _want_ the career risking hassle of putting out an overtly religious work?  So the ONLY overtly religious explorations in American film produced in the last 20 years were occasional SAFELY CONSERVATIVE productions.  Even then the producers of _these productions_ were shelled, if not by the religious community then by America’s creative community, as Mel Gibson and Roland Joffé (director of the recent movie There be Dragons) could attest. 

So whatever else one could say about the Tree of Life, at least it offers the possibility of breaking this generational drought in religious exploration in American film.  And I’d like to take this opportunity to tee-up and aim for a home run here: I’d like to challenge the film community to take this film as a starting point, and take _also_ the artistic insights of the likes of Salvador Dali (a not-insignificant portion of whose work had an obvious religious dimension [1],[2],[3]) and James Joyce [1] [2] (to some extent the latter has been used in movies like the Coen brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? and more recently A Serious Man) and go out to produce a new generation of religiously grounded films. 

I can think of at least three religiously based films that are crying to be made:

A film based on the life of the biblical Jacob, who went through most of his life as arguably _a con man_ but one, as one reads his story, who _didn’t have_ much of a choice.  Yet _this_ was the one whom God eventually blessed with a new name, Israel, that is “one who wrestles with God.”  

A film based on the life of the Joseph of Genesis, who had every right to just hang himself in prison after having been betrayed once by his Brothers and again by the wife of his Master/Boss.  And yet, there in the Darkness of the Dungeon that he found himself in, with arguably ONLY his Dreams as his company, he was able to slowly rebuild his life and then to the extent that he actually ended up Saving the Brothers who betrayed him in the first place.  Reading that take on Joseph’s life, it actually starts to look NOT ALTOGETHER DIFFERENT from that of the young teenage girl who after the death of her mother was “sent into an insane asylum” by her step-father which formed the foundation of the story-line for Zack Snyder's recent movie Suckerpunch that was roundly panned by critics, though interestingly not necessarily by the Church.

Finally, a film based on the life of Saint Patrick, the rich Christian boy (Patricius was probably derived from Patrician, meaning upper class in Latin) from Britain who was kidnapped by still pagan Irish raiders (perhaps in hopes of extorting a ransom), who after his escape _decades later_ had _every reason to be bitter_ and to _hate_ those Irish raiders for stealing what would have been the “best” (young adult) years of his life.  Instead, he _chose_ to make lemonade out of the lemons that he was given, became ordained as a priest after he escaped and found his way back to Britain, AND RETURNED to Ireland to convert the very people who had so thoroughly damaged his life. 

There are countless other stories that one can think of once one starts going and I mention these three in part because one wonders what the creative community of today could achieve with them if the free-form techniques used by Terrence Malick to make the Tree of Life (based on the Book of Job) were applied to them.
Okay now, to the actual movie ... Malick’s Tree of Life begins with a quotation from the Job: “Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its size; do you know? Who stretched out the measuring line for it?  Into what were its pedestals sunk, and who laid the cornerstone, While the morning stars sang in chorus and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4-7). 

The beginning sequence of the movie featured two people, a woman in the 1950s, Mrs O’Brien (played by Jessica Chastain) and a man, Jack (played by Sean Penn), a generation later calling out to God about the difficulties in life that they were facing.  The visual response was slow, awesome and long.  About 5-6 minutes were devoted to the age of the dinosaurs alone..., who we are eventually reminded (again visually) were destroyed in more or less an instant by a meteor strike. 

That sequence ends with Jack calling out to God “when did you speak to me first,” which begins heart of the movie.  Presented initially are mostly images of Jack’s birth and early experiences, playing with his mother, playing with blocks, playing with mud, playing eventually with a new younger brother and encountering also his father Mr. O’Brien (played by Brad Pitt).  Much happens afterwards.  The movie closes _without_ it being altogether clear what exactly were the crises that Mrs O’Brien faced or her son faced a generation later.  But most viewers will probably get the point.

The Tree of Life is an _awesome_ movie in the proper sense of the word.  It won’t necessarily be for everyone.  Indeed, I can’t think of _anyone_ that I would immediately recommend this movie to in my mostly “meat and potatoes” ethnic parish, though after to some reflection I would recommend it to some and perhaps to some of their adult children.  But I do believe the movie to be brave and it could become the inspiration of a lot of brave and reflective film-making in the future.   Thanks Malick for making it!

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  1. This film evokes the experience of many families, and that includes the suppression of emotion that is so identified with the 1950s. It was also a time when the head of the household was a male figure who had all the power. It's clear that life was not the idyllic picture some of us remember selectively from black and white television.

    Parenthetically or not, Malick is of Middle Eastern and Orthodox descent. Most Orthodox immigrating to smaller areas in the U.S. in the early part of the 20th Century, especially in the South, became Episcopalians, which is what the O'Briens appear to be. Priest and Church are prominent in The Tree of Life, but Jack may have left his spirituality behind with his childhood and with the loss of something very precious to him. The emptiness in his life is palpable. The final scenes represent the peace (or Peace) this family so desperately needed.

    This is a film of incomparable beauty and grace. It is a work of art, and as such it is not for everyone. I rate it highly, and it is easily one of the three or four best films of 2011.

  2. I found Fr. Dennis' review gives a sense of the unusual nature of this film and its treatment of nature-grace, and death-life. The pacing is slow, so most won't like it. But it deals with religious and philosophic themes as well as any I can remember. I am an American Catholic priest; and while I grant that it could be interpreted more through the Heidegerrian influences of Malick than in a sense explicitly Christian, it would make most of the movie pretty ironic, indeed. I second Fr. Dennis' challenge: more fine movies!
    When are we in the Christian community going to encourage outstanding movies that have the ambiguity inherent in their great subjects, rather than narrow 'orthodox' mediocrities that keep a strong grip on the viewer's neck?

  3. I saw this movie tonight, and I am glad some reviewer got the profound and ambiguous--the two ARE closely related--impression the movie left on me. I thought it was one of the most successful treatments of religious and philosophical themes I've ever seen. And I was deeply disappointed in the review on CNS, which I found superficial and, just as Fr. Dennis suggests, the kind of response that discourages film makers from venturing into this area. "Dumb it down, so we can make sure it's orthodox." I am an American priest, and I say this film has more of what nourishes true piety, than cartoonish slogans. If Christianity can nourish Augustine, Aquinas, Bach, even a Stravinsky and Tolstoy in their way, then we don't need a desiccated version, but the real, complex mystery in which they found Beauty and Truth.
    I second Fr. Dennis' challenge: filmmakers, take on these themes!

  4. Thanks CC! I do continue to wish that film-makers be brave and take-up more films with explicit religious themes.

  5. This is n addendum to my comment of December 3. I saw this film again, this time on my own TV. I turned on closed captioning, which made the film all the more meaningful. Previously, it was visual, but now it's more.