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The ways of nature and grace

19 July 2011

Stephen Brown sees a Cannes prizewinner


IT IS getting to be quite a fashion for films to begin with a biblical quote. In The Tree of Life (Cert. 12A), it is God’s response to Job after 37 chapters of bemoaning his plight: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” By way of answer, the film lays before us a breathtaking cinematic spectacle, breaking forth from strangely beauti­ful orange light into a created world of erupting volcanoes and jellyfish; reason enough for watching it in the cinema, not on DVD.

Terrence Malick, a devout and learned man, has directed only five films in as many decades. His medit­ative approach brings its own rewards, not least the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) is a con­temporary Job, wrestling with the mystery of suffering. Through a dialogue with his Texas childhood, we encounter his father (Brad Pitt) and mother (Jessica Chastain). Mr O’Brien works from a survival of the fittest life-script. The Pitt character represents an ongoing conversation between neo-Darwinism and Gen­esis with its reference to the tree of life. Malick exposes chinks in hard-line evolutionary theory — a dinosaur taking pity on its prey, O’Brien’s toughness belying a deep care, etc. — but the film is no creationist polemic, either. A young tree grows alongside the O’Briens, bearing silent witness to life’s possibilities. The film makes indirect reference to Revelation 22.2’s dec­lara­tion that the leaves of the tree of life signal human flourishing in a world yet to be realised.

Malick, from Badlands to The New World, has seriously considered how, till then, we may continue to live hopefully after our Fall. Mrs O’Brien suggests: “There are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace.”

It is our chosen reaction to exist­ence that matters, Malick argues, thus heralding a cornucopia of preoccupations (loss, love, redemp­tion, suffering), jostling for screen time. Jack is the architect son, striding along the corridors of a glassy, glossy Babel tower in modern-day Dallas, recalling how things used to be better in the 1950s and 1960s. Not exactly Housman’s “blue remembered hills”, because painful memories, like Eden’s ser­pent, wrap themselves around those magic moments.

In equally superb performances, Jack’s parents react to suffering quite differently. Mrs O’Brien takes the road less travelled by. She is grace personified. Barely an on-screen word passes her lips but we hear, among others, fragments of her prayerful invocations, with a stun­ning soundtrack featuring a score of sacred composers from Bach to David Hykes’s harmonic chants.

Of course, that is the key to the film’s construction: only if necessary does Malick ever use words. Ulti­mately, it reminds me of Kafka’s in­triguing invitation: having eaten of the tree of knowledge, we must now eat of the tree of life. I take that to mean choosing the way of grace, and so, it would seem, does Terrence Malick.

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