Monday, March 19, 2012

The Tree of Life: A Moving Picture

We watched Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life last night. It is a beautiful moving picture, managing to be both subtle and immense. It is visually and thematically ambitious, and enjoyable for this reason alone. The opening monologue sets it up well, as a story of nature and grace. Through this lens we see shots of the universe in all its natural glory, from macrocosm to microcosm. We also see a family, seemingly divided down the middle between the "way of nature" and the "way of grace". As the voice over tells us: The one "only wants to please itself, to have its own way," and the other “doesn’t try to please itself; it accepts being slighted, accepts insults and injuries." Then we hear the suggestion that "no one who follows the way of grace ever comes to a bad end”--even though this is exactly what is being called into question throughout the film. These are incredible themes to base a film around, and it is evocatively done. For doing that well it has my applause.

I'll agree with this reviewer, who voices some disappointment that the theme of grace seems mostly passive and might have been portrayed with more complexity (i.e., grace in the form of a courageous self-giving). However, it is not like the portrayal is shallow. We see the tension in the characters themselves, and even see the two most willful characters come to a point of confession between them. We see both the beauty and horror of nature -- with the former writ large and the latter haunting the whole -- like a National Geographic film except with a full dose of self-consciousness about the questions of meaning. When it comes to the human narrative I suppose I was wishing for was a truer picture of the (seemingly foolish) courage of grace. But I suppose one can't fault a film for not having a full-blown Christ figure. In fact, if it had one, we might be criticizing it for spoon-feeding us instead of leaving us with the longing. Perhaps what the reviewer is on to -- the concerting thing about the film -- is that it is so realistic; nature does always seem to have the upper hand. But even with its harder edges, it looks gorgeous.

For me this film was an 8/10 (which for me means it was very good), and I wouldn't fault anyone for giving it full marks.


Adam Nigh said...

We're launching a quarterly film and faith discussion event at our church next month, beginning with this film. Pretty excited about it.

I was helped by someone pointing out the significance of the Job quote at the beginning of the film where God finally answers Job pointing to the vastness and complexity of creation for pointing toward the purpose of the movies quite long exploration of that theme.

Jon Coutts said...

Yeah. I think there is a lot of potential here for discussing the fact that "grace" - when defined from within nature and without revelation - is always going to come up short. In a sense, for all the marvel of nature, on its own it can't even begin to give us the marvel of grace.