Brad Pitt and Terrence Malick debuted their new movie The Tree of Life last week at the Cannes Film Festival in France, picking up the event's top honor, the Palme d'Or. The deeply spiritual film has garnered wildly varied reactions from critics, with its epic scope that tries to address everything: creation, death, love, God, the Fall, and redemption. Critics may not agree on its meaning, but everyone certainly is talking about it.
Long ago, skilled artists crafted intricate stained-glass windows that told stories of faith. The best bypassed the intellect to a degree, creating profound and transcendent emotions as true as, or perhaps truer than, factual knowledge. The 21st century has its mystical artists, but they solder together movies instead of shards of glass. The Tree of Life, a fragmented and radiant film, shares more with the glowing masterpieces of old than with the kind of story usually told at the theater. Unlike any movie you've ever seen, it is a visual prayer set to music.
Melded together by director and writer Malick from bits of images, memories, and heart-cries, the film envelopes us in one man's spiritual journey. Jack, played in adulthood by Sean Penn, ruminates on the mysteries of life and loss on the anniversary of his brother's death. The film has no time for the frivolous or the mundane. The universe is a big question, one that Jack has been asking since he can remember, one he cannot avoid on a day in which mortality invades his mind.
For the most part, the viewer stays inside Jack's mind, flitting from event to event and image to image in a visual train of thought that varies from sublimely beautiful to overwhelming.
From his mother, played with angelic love and beauty by Jessica Chastain, flows all of Jack's earliest knowledge of the world. "There is the way of nature and the way of grace," she believes, lives, and teaches. She is his angel walking in the cool of the garden, the very image in Jack's mind of all that is good and beautiful and true in the universe.
"When did I first look for You?" he whispers to God. "You spoke to me through her, in the tree, in the sky." These prayers are whispered over Jack's earliest memories, his lawn, the sun in the leaves, his mother reading a book, his father holding his hand as he learned to walk.
Of course, there is a snake in Jack's garden. It lives within.
As he grows, he is as not good as he desires to be. Neither is his father, played brilliantly by Pitt (who is also one of the movie's producers). Father is what we would all call a good man. He works hard, is tender with his children, and teaches them toughness. He also can be mean, snide, and occasionally loses his temper. His good isn't good enough.
That can only mean Jack's good falls short as well. When he witnesses a friend's drowning, he challenges God: "You let anything happen. Why should I be good if You are not?" Just as bad, he finds in himself evils, including normal little boy misdeeds. "I hate the things I do," he laments.
How does he get back to the garden?
All of his uncertainty comes up in his memories of growing up in the 1950s with his long-gone brother who was both his victim and inspiration. Jack's mind also skims over ineffable mysteries. He pictures the moment of the Big Bang, the formation of nebulae and planets. He visualizes the process of evolution, something in which he imagines God could have a hand, the empty earth before creatures, beautiful cells growing in ancient primordial oceans, the lonely life of a dinosaur. All this leads him to ask "What are we to You? Do you see us?"
Set to beautiful arias, organ music, and cathedral choirs, the film slows down from movies' usual frenetic pace to fully examine a breathtaking shot of a nebula or an amoeba while the music swells. Almost every frame is crammed full of meaning and imagery. Each frame could be hung, alone, as profound art. The film pulsates with sounds: the beating of the ocean, the whisper of the wind in the trees, the rhythm of a heart. All the acting is superb, especially the boys playing Jack and his siblings whose effortless work makes the viewer feel like they're peeping around a corner at real boys who are unaware of the scrutiny.
At over two hours, the film could have been shed a good number of clips, especially the ending, and not have lost any power. The nonlinear nature feels uncomfortable at times. But as the credits roll, you feel full, satisfied, as after a symphony, a visit to a particularly good museum, or after listening to a pipe organ while gazing at the light streaming through stained glass windows.