Illustration: Adeline Pericart

We laughed, we cried, we sneaked in our own popcorn. 2011 brought with it some memorable trips to the cinema to revel in the joy of film. And so the Film Ireland collection of filmbots look back in love and recall their favourite films of the last year in the latest installment of…

We Love… 2011

The Tree of Life

(Terence Malick)

‘… A work of great beauty and deep humility…’

Derek Mc Donnell

The cinematic works of Terence Malick have, over the course of his long, enigmatic career, often been described as visual tone poems; symphonic movements of image, music and words in unison which attempt to evoke feelings, ideas, moods, interior and exterior landscapes.

From his striking 1973 debut Badlands through to this years masterwork The Tree of Life (my favourite film of the year) Malick possesses a distinct voice that has seen him claim a unique place in the history of American film, a director who has been given the freedom to float outside the demands of the marketplace and follow his own muse without any fear of a producer or financier pressuring him to alter his vision that would make his work more accessible to a mainstream audience.

Thus, none of Malick’s films have ever attained the commercial success of his contemporaries of the 1970s such as Coppola, Spielberg, Scorsese et al and his output of just five films in nearly fourty years is either a testament to the Texas natives artistic stubbornness and reluctance for self-promotion or a regrettable and accurate reflection of a fundamentally capitalist industry’s attitude toward its true visionaries.

However, one feels about Malick’s films – and his work does still sharply divide opinion from those who worship his cinematic reveries to lost innocence to those who deride it’s pretentiousness, their lack of conventional narrative – there is no doubt that his small body of work is one of the most singular and specific in modern cinema. The use of dreamy, poetic voice-over, lingering shots of the natural world juxtaposed with the actions of mankind, rapturous use of music often classical in form, offhand, intimate moments of simple, human connection, the suggestion of a greater power; one that creates and destroys, contained not only in the world around us but in every one of us.

But you may ask, what does this long winded digression and analysis have to do with your opinion of The Tree of Life, Derek?’ Well mostly it is designed to show off and procrastinate but also this is the type of film or work of art that tends to lead to a passionate but scattered way of thinking that fuels my writing. Even now, listening to the film’s wonderful soundtrack, I feel re-energized and ready to discuss and argue about any subject or idea regardless of whether or not I have the sufficient knowledge to be coherent.

A black screen, a flickering flame – the birth of the universe no less and a woman’s voice; hushed, patient and wise lays out the films central thesis, ‘The nuns taught us there were two ways in life – the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one to follow.’ Malick segues into the past; Waco, Texas in the early/mid ’60s – a couple played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain in Waco learn of the death of their youngest son. Cut to the present day; their other son Jack now grown up and looking somewhat like Sean Penn muses on the past entrapped in the suffocating environs of a modern office building. His thoughts lead him/Malick to ponder the creation of the universe – and we are shown this in stunning detail.

The Tree of Life is a work of grand ambition in which Penn’s character, a likely surrogate for Mr Malick himself, wrestles with questions and ideas of great magnitude. The death of his brother, his relationship with his parents, his life in the modern world force him to grapple with life, death, nature, faith and existence itself. It is a philosophical inquiry that encompasses the cosmic but is also a deeply felt, personal work evoking a lost paradise of childhood.

At its spiritual core are Jack’s parents representing nature and grace – the father is stern, disciplined and somewhat unfulfilled whilst the mother is almost ethereal; indulgent, playful and affectionate. Both are loving in their own ways and neither one’s behaviour is viewed as absolute. They are flawed figures. Malick seems to be suggesting that part of adulthood is reconciling with both of these approaches to life and finding some balance. The loss of innocence whilst tragic seems inevitable.

Cynicism and bitterness are forces of destruction and corruption in Malick’s world and as Jack enters adolescence we see this change, which he tries to fight. Confused, angry and afraid he rebels against his parents whose mythical aura is stripped away and he sees them as human and for the first time he is alone. This change in Jack is a change that everyone of us experience and can recognize but rarely have these formative years been visualized in such overwhelmingly grandiose and poetic terms as in The Tree of Life.

A work of great beauty and deep humility.


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