The muses are gaily capricious in the favors they bestow upon us, but humorlessly imperious in the demands they make of us. One never knows when inspiration may strike; one knows only that, when it comes, it must not be resisted. In my case, the occasion was an idle afternoon this past week, as I was irascibly considering the reaction of a few conservative Catholic critics to Terrence Malick’s strange, beautiful, perhaps slightly mad, and deeply Christian film The Tree of Life. One review even described the sensibility of the film as “New Age,” a judgment bizarrely inapposite to Malick’s often dark, often radiant, emotionally austere, and deeply contemplative art.
The film, in fact, is brilliant, mesmerizingly lovely, and almost alarmingly biblical. Even if one is not enchanted (as I most definitely am) by Malick’s signature cinematic mannerisms, or by the fleeting hints of his more recondite intellectual preoccupations (Heidegger? Gnosticism? Buddhism? Russian Sophiology, perhaps?), surely one ought to recognize the ingenious subtlety of the scriptural allegories around which the film is built, and of the film’s meditations on the mystery of God’s silence and eloquence, and on innocence and transgression, and on the divine glory that shines out from all things.
Or so I was thinking as I drowsed there, warming my pelt in a pool of sunlight. Then, however, it occurred to me that perhaps, after all, these critics did have a kind of point. Oh, yes, The Tree of Life is profoundly, if mysteriously, scriptural—with its images of Eden, Cain and Abel, God speaking out of the whirlwind, divine Wisdom dancing at the heart of creation, Christ the man of sorrows, and so on—but is that sufficient to make it a truly Catholic film, at least of the sort these earnest critics so obviously crave? And I realized that probably it is not: It contains no pericopes from the catechism, no triumphant affirmations of papal primacy, no satisfying deathbed conversions, no heartwarming tableaux of the happy Catholic family warm in the embrace of Mother Church, no nuns, no Bing Crosby, no Italians . . .
And that was when Melpomene pounced (the frolicsome wanton). In an instant it came to me, like a flash of lightning: the plot of the perfect Catholic film. Not simply a Catholic film, mind you, but that film than which none more Catholic can be thought. I shall not describe to you the instantaneous thrill of elation that seized me—that intoxicating sense of mingled fear and bliss, so like a giddy bride’s exquisite apprehensions on her hymeneal night—but I will say that I leapt up from my window seat and immediately began sketching out the scenario. I have thought of little else since then, and have applied myself assiduously to the mighty task. It’s slow going, admittedly—nothing truly great emerges quickly from the blazing crucible of poetic transport—but I’m getting there. Here is what I have so far (I’m sure you’ll keep it to yourself):
Scenario for Prey of the Hound of Heaven
1952. Long shot of an old but handsome house in a respectable middle class neighborhood of some eastern American city. Close up of a garden statuette of the Blessed Virgin, standing in a bed of white lilies. A distant murmur of solemn voices. The voices suddenly become fully audible; cut to interior panning shot: white plaster walls, a crucifix, a fading photograph of a young man in military uniform (World War I) bordered by black funerary ribbon, another photograph of a very similar young man in a priest’s collar, and finally an attractive woman in her forties kneeling alongside her three children (two girls and one boy, all around ten years old), praying the rosary. Close up of one girl, Mary Catherine: a bored and sullen expression, warily darting eyes, lips barely moving; she is not really praying; she idly fingers the beads of her mother-of-pearl rosary. Close up of the boy, Danny [or Anthony], who smiles knowingly [or scowls uncertainly] at his sister as he prays in a clear voice.
Cut to dinner table that same night. Father—an imposing yet dapper figure in a high collar and necktie—is saying grace. Passing of plates, distribution of food, close ups of enigmatic expressions [or barely suppressed laughs] on the children’s faces. Father tells of labor agitations down at the docks [factory, garment district, corn exchange] where he works. “In hard times,” he declares at one point, “men will turn to anything, even a godless socialism.”
[Perhaps we had better make the year 1932 instead of 1952.]
Mention is made of Grandfather, who has lived a reprobate’s life for some years in a foreign city [Berlin? Singapore?] and is no longer in regular contact with the family. Mother announces that a letter has arrived from Uncle Ben. Mary Catherine asks why Uncle Ben does not return home from [name of some South or Central American nation where there may have been a communist insurgency or anti-clerical government in 1932 or 1952]. Mother patiently reminds her that, after Uncle Edward was killed in the Great [or Spanish-American] War, Uncle Ben took holy orders and devoted his life to the Indians [or peasants] of [the nation mentioned above], who need him now more than ever. Danny [or Anthony] asks why God does not make everything all right for the Indians [or peasants] and bring Uncle Ben home. Mother explains that sometimes grace must crush us utterly (“Like dust on the heels of God”) in order to make us whole (“That’s how we know it’s grace”). Close up of Mary Catherine, who is not listening.
Cut to Uncle Ben, unshaven, unkempt, superbly seedy, seated at a plain wooden table in some hovel without any glass in its windows. His clerical collar has become detached at one side and hovers limply over the open top buttons of his sweat-soaked black shirt. He is staring at a faded and wrinkled photograph (of his family, taken in his childhood), next to which stands a nearly empty bottle of mescal; he picks up the bottle with a violently trembling hand and places it to his lips. At that moment a stunningly lovely young Indian maiden [or peasant girl] rushes in and tells him [Spanish with subtitles] that the Federales [or rebels or “soldiers”] are coming and that he must flee to the forest with the tribe [or village]. Ben looks at her with an expression of infinite fatigue. She enjoins him again to follow her, now with greater urgency: “Who will pray for us if you don’t come? Who will give us the body of Christ or hear confession when we are dying?” Ben sighs, rises wearily and somewhat unsteadily, and says, “Sí, sí, entiendo. Vendré.”
Cut to the band of refugees, now deep in the jungle, kneeling before a makeshift altar—two rotting boards supported on piles of rocks—where Ben is saying mass. Many close-ups of haggard but reverent Indian [or peasant] faces. [This scene should be unnecessarily prolonged.] Cut to Ben, later, sitting on a boulder by a running stream. He draws the mescal bottle from his knapsack, finds it empty, and flings it morosely away. Enter Pedro, one of the tribal [or village] elders, who tells Ben that everyone is relying on his faith. “Faith?” says Ben bitterly as he stares at the water from incarnadined eyes. “Do I even know what that means any more?”
Cut to interior of a church back in the States. Mother, Father, and the three children are kneeling in their pew, the priest is at the altar (Latin mass, plenty of incense), golden light streams down from a high window. Close up of a statue of the Blessed Virgin, tenderly cradling the infant Christ in her arms. Close up of Mary Catherine, not praying but instead staring covetously at the magnificent earrings of the lady in the pew in front of her. Close up of Danny [or Anthony] gazing with precociously haunted eyes at the crucifix above the high altar.
Cut to the end of the service, the priest shaking the hands of his parishioners as they are departing. He asks after Mother’s father; she grimly reports that they have had no word for some time. The priest assures her that her father will always find a warm welcome in the parish.
From this point on, I have not yet worked out the exact order of scenes, but I have a general idea of the plot. The action in North America will leap forward twenty years to 1972 or 1952, but will continue to be intercut with scenes of Uncle Ben in 1952 or 1932.
Father is now dead, having perished in a Typhus epidemic eight years earlier. Mary Catherine has become estranged from her family, having been debauched by a laodicean Protestant, then having lapsed into a life of frivolous materialism, and finally having become infatuated with a communist named Rod who has taught her to scorn her faith. When she tells Rod she is carrying his child, he merely laughs at the conventions of monogamy and the bourgeois family and tells her that she is only one of the women with whom he shares his bed.
Meanwhile, Danny [or Anthony] has begun to sink into despair, no longer certain what he believes. Philosophy has corrupted him. His childhood friend Tony [or Donnie] has become involved with a local crime boss, running numbers [or drugs]. There are some plot complications [to be determined later], in consequence of which Tony [or Donnie] is shot by a member of a rival gang and dies in the rain, late at night, on the pavement outside a Catholic church, with Danny [or Anthony] bent over him weeping and cursing heaven.
Later we see an angry Danny [or Anthony] talking to his priest, asking how a good God could let his friend die like that—or, for that matter, permit “what happened to Uncle Ben.” The priest explains the necessity of suffering in a fallen world and then holds forth on Purgatory for five minutes or so, explaining the concepts both of sanctification and of temporal punishment. When Danny [or Anthony] says he finds it all so hard to believe, the priest assumes an avuncular tone and remarks that the truth is often incredible. Later Danny [or Anthony] visits his mother, who tells him that, but for our sufferings, we could know nothing of the love that heals. “Think of Uncle Ben,” she says.
Uncle Ben’s story resumes in medias res: soldiers have surrounded the refugees in the jungle and are methodically massacring them; Uncle Ben is screaming “No!” over and over again as two Indians [or peasants or soldiers] hold him back. Later, he and the surviving refugees are marched through the jungle and imprisoned at a compound governed by the dreaded and elegantly mustachioed Comandante “El Monstruo” Rodriguez [or by the dreaded and coarsely bearded rebel leader known only as “El Toro del Bosque”]. Executions are to commence at dawn and to continue until the surviving Indians [or peasants] reveal the whereabouts [of something—maybe a gold crucifix from their church].
Among the prisoners is a dissolute old ruffian called Carlos who mocks Ben for believing in God in this world where only force rules, and who curses the nuns who taught him the same lies when he was a boy in the mission school. Ben merely says, “Perhaps you’re right,” and goes on caring for the wounded among his fellow prisoners. We see him administer last rites to the same lovely young woman who persuaded him to flee in the first place; he does not shed any tears.
At some point Ben is interrogated by El Monstruo [or El Toro], a surprisingly urbane if darkly cynical soul, who asks Ben what has become of his God—“The God who left these wretches you love to die in the forest”—and who reveals that he was raised in a devout household and even briefly studied for the priesthood, before learning that the universe is nothing but a cold chaos of violence. At the end of his strength, Ben admits that he does not know if he has any faith left.
The next morning, as executions are about to begin, Ben asks to take the place of [someone—details to be worked out later] before the firing squad. As Ben is led away, Carlos kneels to receive his benediction. Poignant strains of movingly discordant Indian songs [or plangently sad peasant melodies] accompany him as he departs into the light shining in through the dungeon doorway. Later, we see El Monstruo [or El Toro] alone in his office; he opens his desk drawer and removes a small crucifix from beneath some files; “Madre…mi madre…” he mutters. He instructs his lieutenant to release the prisoners.
Back in the States, in 1972 or 1952, Mother has received word from Grandfather. He is near death and longs to see her. Mother, Danny [or Anthony], and [name of third child] journey to Grandfather’s vast stately home in England. The old man is failing fast. Carla—his mistress in years past, now merely his constant companion—has summoned a priest on several occasions, but Grandfather will not receive him. The priest, a garrulous and cheerful old Irishman, assures Mother that, in the end, the nets of grace can catch even the most elusive fish. At the hour of Grandfather’s death, with his loved ones kneeling all about him and the priest bending over him, unctuous cotton swab in hand, and with Danny [or Anthony] praying for some clear sign, the old man feebly crosses himself and promptly expires in the odor of sanctity. A cloud passes from before the face of the sun and the room is filled with golden light. Danny [or Anthony] has found his faith again.
Mary Catherine is now a whore living in a dismal single room above a cheap dive whose neon light flashes through her window all night long. She has left her baby in the care of the nuns at a foundling home “over on the East side.” Danny [or Anthony] finds her, after months of searching. She does not want to see him, but he forces his way in. He begs her to come home, but she merely tells him to leave.
Before going, however, he draws something wrapped in a pink handkerchief from his pocket and gives it to her; “This is from Mother,” he says. Mary Catherine unwraps it; it is her mother-of-pearl rosary. She begins weeping uncontrollably and sinks to the floor. Her brother crouches beside her, holds her close, and tells her that love—the love of God and of her family—will never let her go. Thereafter, brother and sister retrieve the baby from the orphanage and return home, where Mother embraces her daughter and takes the baby in her arms. Mary Catherine gazes rapturously at her child. We see the garden statuette of the Blessed Virgin again, somewhat more weathered, but still standing.
The last scene is of Indian [or peasant] girls laying flowers on Uncle Ben’s grave, marked by a humble wooden cross, now obviously many years old. Long shot of sunset over the jungle; reprise of the poignant Indian [or peasant] music from Uncle Ben’s death scene.
Cut to credits. Allegri’s Miserere [or the Misa Criolla].
David Bentley Hart is contributing editor of First Things. His most recent book is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press). His other “On the Square” articles can be found here.
Kevin Collins, Tree of Life Yields Little Fruit
Thomas Hibbs, A Story From Before We Can Remember: A Review of Tree of Life
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