J and I went to see Terrence Malick‘s new film Tree of Life this weekend. Most of what I want to say is that you should go see it. Seriously. Stop reading this, google the showtimes for your area, and go see it.
On the way to the parking lot I overheard someone wonder if this was the best piece of Christian art since the Renaissance. Now, that is undoubtably overstating the case.
There’s been lots of visual art, music, and literature that has dealt with Christian themes since then and lots of it has been good. (More of it’s been bad – but that’s a different post.) I’m not sure, though, that there’s anything that quite parallels this movie in terms of attempting a portrayal of the interior experience of a life of faith. That sounds a little bit like an impossible task, until you think that we have lots of movies that portray the subjective experience of loving another person. Our spiritual lives are no more interior and subjective than our love lives, and yet few artists have attempted to portray them in ways that are not either sarcastic or schmaltzy.
Malick takes seriously the way that the claims of a faith work upon our lives. He takes seriously the experience of attempting to relate to God. He takes seriously the doubt and pain that is not the opposite of faith, but part and parcel of it. What we believe, what we adore, the ultimate claims we hold true, shape us. They, quite literally, shape how we see the world. And that is what Malick attempts to portray: how trust in God shapes lives, particularly in the aftermath of a tragedy.
If you’re feeling like that’s an awful lot for a movie to try and treat, you’re right. In lesser hands this subject matter–faith and suffering–would become a morality play. Malick, though, is wiser than that and this movie is something akin to a poem, or a prayer.
Just as the book of Job, the most serious biblical attempt to wrestle with faith and pain, has only a shell of a plot, so too this movie. There’s no fast paced action here, no significant action of any sort. Malick’s reflections are set within the context of sketches from a family’s life together. The family faces the joy and sorrow that we all face in one way or another. Interspersed with impressionistic scenes of quotidian life, are scenes of the evolution of life and the beauty of our cosmos. To watch this movie is like listening to a symphony. Go when you’re fully awake and abandon yourself to Malick’s world.
Expect to come out with more questions than answers.
I think that was one of my favorite parts. Much of the dialogue, such as it is, is in the 2nd person, addressed presumably to God. It’s a prayer. And tons of it is just questions. In wrestling with the tragedy that has befallen her we hear the mother’s voice asking, “Was I false to you? Lord? Why? Where were you? Did you know? Who are we to you?”
Malick, thankfully, doesn’t try to answer these questions. In this he takes seriously the account in Job. Job asked God over and over again to account for the misfortune he’s experienced. Ultimately God comes to respond to Job’s questions, by asking Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth, when the morning stars sang together?” (Job 28:4,7a) These verses are the epigraph to the movie and the driving force behind the movie is the tension inherent: our suffering, our questions, our awe, our limitations.
The question that struck most deeply for me on this first viewing was “Did you know?” When God got all of this started, did God know what was ahead? I don’t mean that in a shallow sense, as in, did God know I’d go to the grocery store today. But, when God’s love overflowed into the act of creation, did God know the suffering and pain that would be inherent in life and love? Did God know in the way parents know when they bring a child into the world that they are giving life to a creature that will suffer and die, and yet they still affirm that this world is good and this life is worthwhile, that it is better to live and suffer and die, than never to live–did God know what was coming in that way? Or might God have not known? The way we can never know the extent of what a child will face, the way we can never know what new life or fresh hell our choices might birth? Did God know?
Malick’s movie raises this and several dozen other questions of similar depth. And, thankfully, he raises them simply, without frills or pathos or much sentiment, and leaves space for us to simply reflect on them. I have no doubt that when I see this film again in a few weeks or a few years that I will be provoked by a different set of questions. As in any great art, there’s more meaning than any one of us is going to uncover on our own.
It’s not a perfect movie. I have some complaints with the final act, and there are some parts that drag. But it’s damn good. J is convinced that much of the country will find the movie boring and inscrutable. I’m not at all sure that’s the case. Malick’s dealing with the fundamental questions we all face–whether we are nominally religious or not. The movie is breathtakingly beautiful and heart wrenchingly real. It’s a poem, and it’s a prayer. Did you see it? What did you think?