The end of summer brings many new beginnings and reunions. Seeing friends again and hearing about exciting travels brings the grace needed to transition from heaps of sunshine to cloudier and colder days ahead. In one such catch up talk with one of my Jesuit friends, we both experienced what we termed a “Tree of Life” moments. We had both seen the film early in the summer and felt moved by it’s beauty and lyrical storytelling. For my friend, the quiet, peace of enjoying nature during his break called him back to the experience of seeing the film.
For me, it was stepping into the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia by Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona, Spain. Walking into the church, I caught my breath taking in the magnificent beauty of the space. The bright stained glass windows, the sculpted turrets, and floating balconies along the high walls were all demanding my attention and praise. Eyes dizzying, mind soaring, heart swooning; all this at once made me think how beautiful this place was and wonderful God is. I think in many ways Terrence Malick’s film prepared me for that moment. As a looked at the windows in Sagrada Familia, my mind floated by to The Tree of Life and like my friend, made me even more grateful for having seen it.
I resisted writing my review for a long time, partly because the film evoked in me raw, undigested thoughts, memories, and feelings I couldn’t quite distill into coherent words. Also I thought Fr. James Martin SJ summed the film up for me perfectly in his essay found here. His piece captures everything I thought and felt right after seeing the film. My experience in Barcelona and others since has given me a bit more to add to the discussion. I found Tree of Life to be film that glorifies interiors as well as nature and explores relationship between grief and memory.
The first is simple, the experience I had in Sagrada Familia, transfixed by the elemental beauty of the church, the carvings depicting foundational scenes of my faith, and imagining having mass in that heavenly place transported me to something beyond that day and time. So too did Malick’s shots of Jessica Chastain and the three boys playing her sons running through their Texas home in the morning light, or Sean Penn rushing in a glass office building, or Brad Pitt playing the organ in a lofted, dark church balcony. Finding God in the created interiors, the places where we celebrate, dine, and commune with each other is as important as loving creation itself.
The second point has more to do with the “plot” in Tree of Life. I suspect if 5 people saw the film, you’d get 5 vastly different plot descriptions. Well, here’s my stab at it. In the beginning we know someone has died- the son of Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain’s character. Sean Penn, their oldest son begins to remember childhood, trying in some way to bring his relationship with his brother into better focus. We see his father, a stern man insistent his sons respect him and not repeat his mistakes. Pitt’s character is a musician without an audience, an intellectual without a degree, and an entrepreneur without a business. He takes out his frustrations on his wife and sons, especially the eldest who dares to challenge him.
Chastain is the lovely counterforce to Pitt representing love, light, and beauty. She encourages and supports her sons, keeping the household in balance. Sean Penn’s younger brother, in memories seems like the best of the bunch. He brings a rare smile to his father’s face playing the guitar while he plays the piano. He trusts his older brother, submitting to his mild abuse and forgiving him after. Losing this good soul causes each family member a deep sorrow. Pitt wonders if he should have been kinder. Sean Penn revels in memories of their soft brawls in their Texas lawn.
Yet Chastain’s mother character experiences a grief so deep that it stretches to the beginning of time. We cast our sights to the creation of the world, dinosaurs, and the origins of human life to find out why this great human life is no longer with us. The loss of her son is so painful it changes the course of time itself so it is necessary to start anew, at the beginning of creation to heal. These three responses all mingle around each other, meeting on the beaches at the end of time- reuniting the family in a peace that escaped their mortal experiences together. That’s my take and I’m sure you’ll have your own response to this beautiful film.
I would not measure The Tree of Life by its greatness, it may not crack my top 20 of the year. However, more than most films I’ve seen this year, it sharpened my own awareness of the beauty around me and those transcendent moments that arise from being truly present. I would instead measure the Tree of Life in gratefulness. For it allowed me to ponder great questions and see great beauty. For that, I thank Mr. Malick for his imagination and artistry.