Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Is the Tree of Life a "religious" film?

RELIGION- a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies...

A few nights ago, I was at an East Village bar with some friends and we started giving our take on Terrence Malick's love-it or hate-it epic The Tree of Life. When someone mentioned that it depicts the creation of the universe, Sharon, a young photographer, asked, "Is it a religious film?"  her friend Mike immediately said, "No" as if that very idea would be insulting.  "No no," Mike said, "Malick's background is in philosophy, guys like Heidegger and all that. He's into asking metaphysical questions."

I now think that Mike was way off, and that the Tree of Life is an intensely religious film.  It's just not necessarily a very Christian film, or at least what one might expect of that label.

"The Tree of Life" is about a Christian family in the 1950s, as remembered by their eldest son Jack (played by Hunter McCracken.)  Christianity is a huge part of the family's life, though each parent emphasizes different aspects of religion . Mother (Jessica Chastain) raises her sons to live with grace, love and selflessness, while The Father (Brad Pitt) demands discipline and obedience and teaches them to be suspicious of the evil in the world.  That conflict brews confusion and resentment in the children, over how they ought live.

Above all this is the central question hovering over the film, which is the question at the heart of every religion.  It's the question we ask when we go to church, synagogue or mosque, when we kneel down to pray, or when burdens fall on us-"Where is God?"

This is the question that haunts Jack as he grows up in a home supposedly infused by Christianity but filled with violence and fear.  It's what his mother demands to know when one of her sons dies.   It's what his father fears to ask as he watches his dreams start to crumble. 

Where the film loses its Christian thread is when Malick tries to answer the question.  Instead of somehow making a case for Christianity, Malick argues that God is all around us, in creation.  To make the point, he starts the film with a graphic showing God's words to Job:
"Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?..When the morning stars sang together, And all the sons of God shouted for joy?" JOB 38:4-7
He then follows this with a film version of the beginning of the Genesis story: 25 minutes showing the creation of the cosmos, set to a background of hyms and requiems.
However just like God's response to Job, Malick's answer is unsatisfying.  Showing the divinity of creation doesn't answer WHY God allows us to suffer, why he allows evil in the world and good people to be punished.  And when Malick tries to go further, showing images of an "Earth Mother" reaching out to The Mother in grief, or a beach where all people from all time meet, his images become as vague and frustrating as they are beautiful. 

In the end, the Tree of Life works best as a coming-of-age story, as Jack struggles to grow from both his father's fearful discipline and his mother's selfless grace.  His bigger questions about the presence of God are definitely worth asking, but Malick's answers seem so far outside the lives of his characters that they ring untrue to the story. 

Even with its imperfections, though, The Tree Of Life remains one of the most visually stunning and affecting films I've ever seen.  It absolutely will leave you frustrated with unanswered questions about the nature of God and the universe, but the very fact that I could leave the film in that state is proof of its power.

I have walked out of church on Sunday on many occasions, feeling numb, my mind on brunch or the afternoon's activities.  Many pastors spend a lifetime trying to get their congregations to leave their doors with an impassioned curiosity about God and humanity.  Malick has accomplished that here, along with creating a visual masterpiece. 

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