US Catholic Faith in Real Life

The Tree of Life

By Patrick McCormick | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
The Tree of Life
Directed by Terrence Malick (Fox Searchlight, 2011) 

Terrence Malick’s kaleidoscopic masterpiece about, well, everything raises several universal questions, but one query this dazzling juggernaut of a film answers definitively is why make movies?

Most contemporary films entertain 14-year-old boys with a barrage of rapid-fire special effects. Other movies translate novels into a cinematic narrative furnished with a tapestry of lovely images and scenery.

But Malick does not strap us into a theme park ride or let us glide along the surface of a picture book story. For him movies are an art form meant to engage, unsettle, overwhelm and—dare one say it—transform us. And Malick the filmmaker wants to use the full palette of cinematic art to engage the sacramental mystery at the heart of our wondrous, terrifying, and concrete existence.

In The Tree of Life, Malick has fashioned a cinematic triptych with a central narrative bracketed by two otherworldly pieces exploring our origins and ultimate destination. The opening act serves up a sumptuous visual and musical synthesis of Genesis and the Big Bang, marveling at the grace and wonder of our very existence; while the closing piece provides an ethereal meditation on life beyond the grave, pondering the meaning and purpose of our lives and the world around us.

But it is the extraordinarily ordinary narrative at the center of Malick’s film that illuminates and grounds this masterpiece. Here is the tale of a small town boy, Jack O’Brien, and his parents. It's a plain and simple tale with none of the sweep or majesty of the myths of creation or the eschaton, but it's a story chock full of all the wonder, terror, and grace inhabiting the smallest gestures of our daily lives.

And this is what dazzles and confounds both Jack and us. How are the mysteries (and creator) of the universe tied to the infinitesimally tiny specks of time and space occupied by ordinary mortals like ourselves? Can our world really be full of the glory and grandeur of God? Imagine a film that has us pondering those kinds of questions, even for a minute.