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Tree of Life

Bob Vernon

Terrence Malick
Certificate 15, 87 mins


­Terrence Malick's latest film has confused and divided critics. Some have derided it as incoherent, self-indulgent, grandiose and 'Christian'. Others have described it as an inspirational, deeply personal meditation on life and the universe.

Any film fan will approach a new Malick film with high expectations. He has been called US cinema's great poet-philosopher, and three of his previous films, Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line have an assured place in the history of cinema.

The Tree of Life is his most personal film. The O'Brien family are raising their three sons in Waco, Texas, in the 1950s, the time and place of Malick's own youth. The family face a tragedy which mirrors one in Malick's. The story is told impressionistically, with little dialogue or exposition, and seems to be the memories of Jack, the oldest boy, recalled during a mid-life crisis. The voice-overs are often confused, as the young Jack struggles with his Oedipal feelings towards his parents. When the tragic telegram arrives Malick introduces a long sequence depicting the birth of the universe, the formation of stars, the shaping of our planet and the emergence of life on Earth and this has troubled many critics. The disparity of scale seems to have shocked them. But Malick is interested in exploring the depth of the ordinary and its connection with the over-arching, even the transcendent. His films are about people like you and me, and they are about scale.

Awareness of our small place in the universe can be uncomfortable but brings to mind the anecdote about a Professor of Astronomy who told his students, 'From the point of view of astronomy we are utterly insignificant,' only for a student to reply, 'No, from the point of view of astronomy, we are the astronomer.' Malick asks 'How can we live in this universe?' The answer is that we make meaning in our lives, as Mrs. O'Brien does. She is in love with God, and with God's creation. She delights in the glory of light and the playfulness of water, she plays with her three boys with uninhibited pleasure and freedom. She believes that the point of our God-given life is love.

This film also addresses the Christian problem of suffering. The death of Jack's brother weighs down on him, and contributes to his mid-life crisis, which is also a crisis of faith. Was his mother, whom he loved, right to believe in Grace - selfless and yielding - or was his Father, who he feared, right to believe in Nature -selfish and power-seeking? Can he believe in the gracious nature of a God who created a universe in which suffering and death are inevitable, and our struggles against them are ultimately futile? Or should he embrace his father's determination to be strong, to survive even if it means looking after number one at whatever cost?

The Tree of Life is a grand cosmic vision, addressing the heights and depth of human experience, and seems to be seeking to acknowledge all the data we have got, cosmological, evolutionary and personal, in ways that may be unprecedented in cinema. It will divide believers from non-believers, but it will divide believers too. It is a visually poetic work of art that addresses a complex theological questions.It may truly be the most adult film I have ever seen. 

Bob Vernon

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