Film explores life’s mysteryBy John A. Esau
The movie began by quoting God from the Book of Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the Earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.”
I sensed we were in for a theological reflection of the meaning of life, but I did not yet understand the complexity and profundity of what we were about to experience.
The movie was The Tree of Life, which afterward I found described as “an impressionistic metaphysical inquiry into mankind’s place in the grand scheme of things that releases waves of insight amid its narrative imprecisions.”
When we saw it, not everyone in the theater was so enthused. Three groups seated around us walked out after 30 to 45 minutes. I overheard someone whisper: “It’s boring.”
We were intrigued, if not enthralled. Never before have we talked for nearly the entire 30-mile trip home about the meaning of what we had just experienced.
How do you bring together such diverse portrayals and expansive themes as the creation of the universe — “complete with evolving galaxies, nebulae and surreal, symbolic representa-tions of the world beyond, according to one reviewer” — with the story of a single family in small-town America during the 1950s?
Terrence Malick, the director, accomplishes this by conceiving of the movie as poetry. He creates complex, symbolic associations constructed with visual images, music and a tragic story of love and violence. Most of the violence is psychological injury inflicted by the father upon his sons and his wife.
Near the beginning of the film the narrator outlines for us that there are two ways of life. One way is the way of nature. It is the natural course that occurs when we follow our instinct to be self-centered, when we focused on our own benefit and gain. Mr. O’Brien, played by Brad Pitt, the father in the story, is the expression of narcissism.
He means well. He wants the best for his family, and wants his children to succeed where he has failed. But he gets it all wrong.
The second way of life is the way of grace. It is the way of love and forgiveness, even when there has been wrong and failure. The way of grace is symbolized in the movie by the mother, played by Jessica Chastain. She is the one who first experiences the tragedy of learning about the death of one of her sons. But she is the one who voices the words: “Unless you love, your life will pass by.”
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