Monday, July 25, 2011

Life Before Death

I went to see 'The Tree of Life' over the weekend. Written and directed by Terrence Malick, it is an extraordinary movie about life, the universe and everything. Literally. I'll try to avoid any spoilers - as you should go and see it for yourself - and would simply say that I think it will be recognised in decades to come as a milestone in cinematography. Though right now it has as many detractors as it does fans.

One thing about the film that surprised me was how Christian it was in its content and construct. Catholic even. The family in the movie - with Brad Pitt and the luminous Jessica Chastain as father and mother - are practising Catholics attending church, receiving communion and so on in different scenes. It even opens with a quote from the Book of Job:
"Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation...while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" 
 I think the film's detractors have missed this: for the film itself is - at the risk of dissuading you from seeing it - a deeply religious experience. Hence the non-linear narrative and the poetic interplay of image and words that annoyed some reviewers. They missed the point: this is cinema as sacrament - a non-rational, non-linear, numinous message of hope and transcendence that ignores the boundaries of rational dialogue and cheap emotionalism that is standard artistic fare these days. But it isn't preachy (or even overtly religious) - I promise!

The core of the movie is about tragedy. About the eternal ache we humans feel for those we have loved and lost in the face of a seemingly cold and indifferent universe. And our deep need to know: why? I am reading John Armstrong's book - In Search of Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Idea - and he has this to say about tragedy:
This is an area in which civilization does not reduce our suffering - does not make life more pleasing or comfortable. What is the achievement of tragedy? It is to present the deepest sorrows of the human condition: what we love is terribly vulnerable; each life is a brief, scarring moment in the wastes of eternity; our transient existence will be marked by depression, confusion and fear. 'In headaches and in worry/Vaguely life leaks away.' The ambition of tragedy is to hold such intelligent fears in a ceremonial act endowed with splendour and grace. The ceremony does not overcome our fears. But, unlike horror, it does not seek to stoke anxiety. The tragic view is, really, a determination to hold to nobility, love and beauty - even while knowing the worst about ourselves.

...Civilization, in this respect, is a community of maturity in which across the ages individuals try to help each other cope with the demands of mortality. So, in taking this seriously, you become part of civilization in an inward and deep way.
As I followed the news about the mass murders in Norway I thought about families of those killed, and about the capacity of a civilized country like Norway to 'cope with the demands of mortality'.

The Tree of Life is a film that reminds us to embrace life - and love - before the inevitability of death. Such reminders have been at the heart of all religions and civilizations down through the ages: Terrence Malick has crafted a work of art that continues that urgent, civilizing task.

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