The Tree of Life

In everyday English, the word mystery implies a puzzle to be solved, a conundrum to be unraveled…In the east, on the other hand, a mystery is an area where the human mind cannot go, where the heart alone makes sense–not by knowing, but by being.  The Greek word mysterion leads you into a sense of “not knowing” or “not understanding” and leaves you there.  Having arrived, all you can do is gaze and wonder; there is nothing to solve.

~Archimandrite Meletios Webber in Bread and Water, Wine and Oil

The Tree of Life, a new film by Terrence Malick, is mysterion on steroids. It is a wrestling, a fascination, a dialogue with God….with truth…with meaning.

It is a film with vast open spaces. Open spaces in the story where the mind works furiously to interpret…to understand. Open spaces in the film itself…breathtaking images of volcanic eruptions, rushing water, cosmic clouds perfumed with dazzling light….and underneath these: silence. A guided contemplation of sorts. With only occasional whispers. Questions. The ones we speak against the night. Are you out there? Do you see me? Do you care? Where were you when….?

Jack (Sean Penn) asks God when it was that He began to speak to him… We see a baby all in white. Curtains billow in the breeze. Shafts of sunlight play on the wooden floor. And tiny, bare feet dance against the air. We look up through the branches of a great climbing tree with silvered leaves rustling in the wind. A butterfly. All the clean joy of a world brand new. A romance has begun.

This world of little boy joy is punctuated with dark, hard places. A brother dies. A father (Brad Pitt) is too often ruled by anger. In his misguided attempts at making his boys strong….and making himself a “great man”…he is sometimes harsh, brutal, unkind. Difficult to reconcile with the man who carries them on his shoulders…the man whose hands coax beautiful music from the keys of their piano and the church organ…the man who piously kneels before God and prays. Fear and love are inextricably linked in the minds of his sons. How do you learn to trust when you never quite feel safe?

Still, in and out of these places of pain are woven shivering grasses along the edge of a lake, ripple of water over stones, a heart throbbing the rhythm of life, hot red lava spilling over the edge of a crater as billows of gray and blue rise skyward, tiny sperm spirals seeking out an egg to begin life anew, water thundering over the edge of a precipice to pound against the pool below. Difficult to reconcile this grandeur with one who lets brothers die…who allows fathers to beat their children. Is it possible to hold onto wonder…always?

The Tree of Life is unlike any film I have ever seen. It is troubling and sacred. Difficult and glorious. An invitation to enter into mystery. To be saturated in it. I encourage you to plunge in.

The film is showing in limited release at present. If you live in Nashville you can catch it at the Belcourt Cinema. If not, click HERE to find a location near you.