“…for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter…” (TS Eliot, The Wasteland)
The press and others are making much of the religious or theological character of Terrence Malick’s new film, Tree of Life, a tremendously ambitious work featuring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, and Sean Penn. It is rare, after all, that a Hollywood film delves into the subject of the numinous.
The film captures the joys and sufferings of a young, ostensibly Catholic family—the O’Brien’s—(Chastain, Pitt and three remarkable young actors playing their pre-adolescent sons) living in a small West Texas town in the 1950s, placing their lives in the context of larger cosmological questions about God, suffering, and the meaning of life.
With Tree of Life, Malick has created a cinematic tone poem abounding in visual beauty. The viewer is seduced by the swirling movement of images, landscapes, and light that fill Malick’s canvas, accompanied by beautiful sacred music, an atmospheric soundtrack, and natural sound.
Water swirls beneath the ocean surface in great waves and cascades hypnotically over magnificent falls; sand blows starkly across the desert floor; the sun shimmers in varied tones of blue and red sky and casts a beautiful light on everything. Malick masterfully places the viewer inside the full beauty of Creation, and he is to be commended for making a work so unapologetically philosophical and painterly.
Faithful Catholics and other Christians, however, should beware of expecting too much of the film’s supposedly faith-friendly view of the universe. While the characters speak openly about and to God and perform some very basic rituals of Catholic family life, there is nothing specifically Catholic or even Christian in Malick’s treatment of God, eternity, and the meaning of life.
The God represented in the film is not the Christian God, incarnated in the person of Jesus Christ (Christ is in fact strangely absent from the family’s collective and private prayer and gets no mention in the film). Nor is he the God of the Old Testament, who comes not in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire, but in a still small voice. This is not the God of Moses, Elijah, and the psalms.
The god of the Tree of Life is a pre-Judaic force, an impersonal, mute entity manifesting itself through the power of nature, in erupting volcanoes, galactic storms, the Big Bang, and puzzling shots of sharks, dinosaurs, and cellular division. The only still, small voices we hear are the internal mutterings of the central characters in the voiceovers that accompany much of the film’s action. It is an evocative and aesthetically pleasing dramatic device, but there is very little substance in what the characters have to say.
Tree of Life would not have been substantially different had Malick depicted a family of observant Hindus, Buddhists, or Muslims. The film’s “Christian” elements—glimpses of sacramental initiation rites, prayers at mealtimes, and meandering Sunday homilies—are like a cloak hiding the deep spiritual poverty of this family; their gestures and rituals do not form or symbolize a coherent fabric of faith, woven deeply into the family’s life, but are an afterthought, with little bearing on their existential search for God. Even the Mass itself is depicted as a mere weekly obligation, without any incarnational or supernatural meaning.
If this is Malick’s point—that the family represents a people who have no language for prayer, no real relationship to their God, and are largely ignorant of their inherited religious tradition (a timely subject for today’s Catholics)—he could have made it in much more rigorous and convincing ways.
Instead of placing eternal questions within the context of any serious theological or artistic tradition, Malick has made a film of religious indifference and easy, new-age spiritualism. The viewer is left to project his own vision of God on the film, because Malick’s characters seek a god with no face and no identity. It is a god without a voice or intelligibility, who has not entered into history. It is a god incapable of protecting his people.
Viewers hoping for a glimpse of salvation will be disappointed. The final beach scene, supposedly depicting some kind of beatific vision, is abysmally sentimental and looks like a soft-focus video advertisement for a Raelian spirituality conference. If eternal bliss is anything like Malick’s sad vision of it, many discerning viewers will leave his film hoping for eternal damnation.
The film is remarkable as a formal exercise in filmmaking. The performances—particularly Chastain’s and Pitt’s—are excellent. The cinematography is unparalleled in its detail and beauty. But as an artistic meditation on spiritual themes, let alone Christian themes, much of the film is trivial and pretentious. Its very title—which suggests both the tree in the garden of Eden and the Cross—is an empty promise of something more than Malick has delivered.
The Church needs some of her saints in the modern-day Areopagus, speaking the language of our age, but the Christian artist seeking to evangelize through his art must be wary of acclimating to the world so deeply that he sheds the mantle of Christ. The modern-day evangelist, and especially the Christian artist, must endeavor to avoid this great temptation.
Likewise, the Christian viewer must also be wary of confusing his generous desire to see Christ in all things with a naive tendency to project meaning and substance where there is none. Some may find it flattering that a film concerning God has won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. But the Christian has a moral duty to develop his faculties of understanding so that he may discern between artistic works of real substance and works that are only superficially beautiful or pleasing. References to God and beauty do not a Christian film make, nor do they necessarily make a good, substantial, and beautiful film.
In short: Go see Tree of Life if you are interested in cinematic form and if you can sit through more than two hours of visual and aural massaging. Do not go expecting to see an intelligent discussion of God, man, and the last things.
Kevin Collins is an actor and theatre director. He is one of the founding members of the newly formed Catholic Artists Society.