There are very few, almost only handful films as compellingly personal in its scope and vision as The Tree of Life. It is sheer poetry as it glides from one moment to the next, meditatively aiming for the mysteries of infinity, spirituality and cosmology. Director Terrence Malick's long absences from moviemaking validate the fact that he's been working even when he's not actually working.
In his fifth feature film in a career spanning over three decades, Terrence seeks to portray an overriding theme that most don't give much thought to -- questions that are greater than humanity. This film awakens instant spiritual enquiries within you; how the earth was formed and where is the human life headed, what it is to become of it and whether our faith in God will help us safely enter the next world.
Terrence commences the action with a striking account of the formation of the universe. Just before that, he briefly introduces us to his primary characters, O'Brien (Brad Pitt), his wife (Jessica Chastain) and Jack (Sean Penn). The story is largely seen through the eyes of Jack, now an architect whose life is luxurious but without an apparent purpose. The O'Briens and their boys were once an ordinary family residing in Texas, their existence so detached that one rarely sees their interaction with neighbours or any other characters except in passing.
Unmotivated and phlegmatic, the father encourages his sons to call him sir, instead of dad or papa. He insists they listen to music. Their mother, on the other hand, is affectionate but despondently divorced from their needs of the time. The O'Briens are shattered by the death of one of their sons but dealing with such a loss barely forms an important portion of the themes explored by the writer-director. The family finally relocates to another town and Jack, now in his middle-age,
misses his dead brother and looks skyward several times over.
A deep religiousness touches every moment in this film, perhaps best represented by the opening quote from the Book of Job and during sermons at the church O'Briens attend with subdued festivity. Right from the beginning, Terrence is not interested in telling us everything about the O'Briens but he examines them with a sense of concern and objectivity. Observe the scenes in which he allows the camera to focus on the lower portions as the parents dandle the kid or the excessive and unlikely spotlight on the gestures of hands. It signifies Terrence's curiosity in capturing larger emotions and fates.
Andrei Tarkovsky, whose path-breaking The Mirror explored time and space, childhood memories and emotional exhaustion, once said, "My encounter with another world and another culture and the beginnings of an attachment to them had set up an irritation like a symptom of the hopelessness of trying to grasp what is boundless, or unite what cannot be joined; a reminder of how finite, how curtailed, our experience on earth must be."
The Tree of Life invokes questions whose answers lay in the belief in God. Terrence drew on his own memoirs for the oneiric reflections that he so frequently employs. His bottom-to-top camera angles, capturing the tree on which flowers bloom eventually, have been used before in Badlands. Terrence's visuals of the creation of earth are treated like an abstract artist's dream, setting the pace for a canvas that will soon be filled up with colours of spirituality.
Yet, the metaphor of tree is life-givingly optimistic. While emphasising upon the transience of human life, The Tree of Life's vital message is voiced by the mother who murmurs, "The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by."
The Tree of Life is a brave addition to the discipline of filmmaking that traces its roots straight to the oeuvre of Bergman and Tarkovsky.