Director: Terrence Malick
Starring: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain
UK Release date: 8 July 2011
Certificate: 12A (139 mins)
Terrence Malick’s cinematic outings are always greeted with initial enthusiasm and subsequent bemusement. Having split the critics, The Tree of Life is variously a spiritual masterpiece and a self-indulgent journey through childhood. It is remarkable as both an example of film’s power to feel intimate and an American production that rejects narrative, cliché and high drama.
Rather than using a story as a starting point for meditation, The Tree of Life is more a series of reflections and meditations. One man sits in his office, remembering. Childhood, as a literal and metaphorical age, is at the foundation: the memories are from Sean Penn’s character’s youth, and the innocent awe of those early years informs the tone and atmosphere of the cinematography.
For all the talk of spirituality in the film – and it has been actually criticised for being ‘too Christian’ – Malick’s spiritual message is either simplistic – death is an inevitable part of life and must be accepted - or too abstract. The spectacular montage of natural beauties and terrors feels uncomfortably generic and disconnected from the very human meditations on family and death. There might be a suggestion of nature as holy, either as creation or creator, but this is lost in the absence of any guidance from the director. Perhaps this is intentional – the pace and focus of the film encourages a personal response – but it makes the film obtuse. This sequence is perhaps the weakest moment. In itself, it is ravishing, a hymn to the glories of nature. Yet it intrudes uncomfortably, adding little to the overall web of reflections.
The representation of family life is unsparing and unsentimental. The father is not soft-edged and gently paternal, encouraging the boys to be tough. The mother is suitably feminine, but lacks the energy to impart compassion to her children as anything more than a weak concern. Her scream in the first sequence – a rather obvious way to introduce death into the film – is as close as the film gets to conventional scripting. Aside from this moment, the film’s pace is gentle and thoughtful, rather than provocative.
Although it is far from unique – Tarkovsky’s Mirror covers similar ground, but with a greater political and historical scope – it is a surprising film to come from twenty first century America. The emphasis on family as the basis of identity and faith moves away from ideas of the broader community – there is barely a token mention of religious community. Indeed, if the film does have a coherent spirituality, it is very much a personal one, about the individual’s relationship to the divine (God is not really articulated as a concept within the film). This perspective, which stresses the web of life over the web of humanity, fits well with the spectacular montage, but has a degree of self-interest which jars with the supposed message.
Nevertheless, this is a beautifully conceived piece of cinema, a jump away from the emphasis on plot and intimate in a way that film rarely manages. It will reward repeated viewing – it almost demands them – although it operates more as a reflection of the viewer than an expression of Malick’s own position.
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