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Ronita Torcato

A little chit, a little chat, a little bit of this & that;meaning news, views & lotsa reviews from an independent journo based in Bombay aka Mumbai



*The Tree of Life*

Starring: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Laramie
Eppler, Tye Sheridan, Fiona Shaw, Cole Cockburn, Will Wallace

Director: Terrence Malick
The bookends of the Bible, Genesis and Revelation,  tell us about the Tree of Life. In the garden of Eden,there was only one such tree; the Book of Revelation assures us there will be many such in the Holy City. For the writer(s) of Proverbs  the Tree symbolised four wonderful truths: Wisdom, righteousness,hope and meaningful communication for the service of all nations in the new earth.
Terrence Frederick Malick's  Cannes award winner, The Tree of Life is grounded, not in Genesis or Revelation, but pantheism even as it makes a strong case for Christ's commandment of love, forgiveness and reconciliation.
Thematically then, it follows the same path trod by his 1998 film The Thin Red Line which won  the Golden Bear at the 49th Berlin International Film Festival.

If one proceeds to view Mallick's long and meandering fifth film expecting an illumination of the mystery of life, forget it. The Tree of Life is the former philosophy professor's ode to Nature that comes into being of its own volition, not  through a deity which creates, saves and redeems.

At the heart of the film is a Texan family,Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien (Brad Pitt, reminding me for all the world like his redneck self in "Inglorious Basterds", newcomer Jessica Chastain), and their three sons. The film begins with a quote from the Book of Job and the  death of the O'Briens' middle son Steve, before it looks at relationships between people and their place within an impersonal universe.But the Book of Job is a text of suffering and God's relationship with a righteous man who suffers unjustly. Wracked by suffering, Job refuses to deny his integrity and that of God.

Malick's O'Brien also suffers lack of worldly success; but he remains a law abiding citizen and regular churchgoer. Mrs Brien is a sweet and gentle soul although she once, most uncharacteristically, lashes out at the husband who quickly subdues her. During another fight ( or was it the same?) he accuses her (falsely) of turning his children against him. For all his drawbacks he is a civilised man and nevr once beats her. And he lives, when he is not struggling with work issues,  in the realm of the cultivated (or cultured) playing the piano, encouraging musicality in his sons, chastising them ( Steve, the second son who dies at age 19,was scolded because he did not properly turn the pages of musical notation. )

There is very little dialogue and we are not shown how he dies ( although it is implied he is killed  in a  war) this lovely, forgiving boy who is once(?) wilfully wounded by older  brother Jack ( Hunter McCracken) who hates the sight of his father, is given to muttering  things like, I wish you were dead and even praying to God in the privacy of his bedroom. You are not sure if the Oedipus complex has anything to do with his hatred of the father. The adult Jack practises as  an architect (Sean Penn)  in Houston, who  continues to talk to God and yet, and yet, remains a shy, withdrawn man. Why? Is this the result of an oppressive father. We  are not sure. (It takes Jack several years to realise love is a lot like farming, to be worked on till it achieves fruition. )

 Where is wisdom to be found, asks the Book of Job.The Scriptures say fear (awe) of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Malick's film quotes Job 38 at the beginning, but submits that wisdom lies in the awe of Nature.
Mrs O Brien says there are "two ways through life: the way of nature, which only wants to please itself, and the way of grace." I think she means the way of the spirit, the dictates of  the heart. For grace is unearned and comes freely from God. Mr O' Brien believes in "fierce will" and that  Man is the  maker of his own destiny.And yet, and yet he is unable to control his anger and cynicism when he loses his job.
But the film also asserts, in one of many voiceovers, the primacy of love. But love is something the rebellious young Hunter is unable to fathom as he witnesses the simmering interplay between his parents. 

The scenes of domesticity and coming of age  are bookended by   montages  of majestic nature ( the cinematographer is Emmanuel Lubezki) and the primodial universe (in CG ) accompanied by grand music (choirs, Brahms, Bach, Mozart) .Also,great swathes of silence ( there were times when all I could hear was the  popcorn  in my mouth, whereupon I promptly stopped eating. Silly me:-)
  The silence and  voiceovers are typical of Mallick ( see my favourite The Thin Red Line) as is his signature camera tilts to the sky ( "where God lives," as Mrs O'Brien puts it, simply,profoundly. )

 Like the Psalmist and the Book of Job, Mallick looks at  man's place in Nature and the vastness of universe.  Life, he says, is all about being aware of earth's glories, of God and of love. Heaven or the after life is a beach. (I prefer the Biblical promise) The Tree of Life is not for those with a fondness for actioners or gorefests. It is for the aesthete who appreciates art, music, religion, and spirituality. I'm not surprised Terrence Mallick is a recluse who shuns Hollywoodian excess.

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About Ronita Torcato

Torcato Agnela Ronita
An incomplete round-up of movie news, features & views from an independent journo & (dare I say it:-) film critic in Mumbai



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