Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Tree of Life (2011, Terrence Malick)

To be happy is to love…

The extraordinary, scintillating, and cathartic film bombards us with beautiful scenes of love: Children playing happily on the streets… A lad comforting a crying brother… A mother doling out advice to her three sons… Father and son collaborating on a musical duet…

Those halcyon days are long gone for a middle-aged executive named Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn). He glimpses back at the best of times but remembers mostly the worst of times.

Where were You?

A family outing turns into a lesson about life’s dark side. The religious lad asks the Lord, ‘why did a boy have to die?’ His dad, who prefers to be called father, decides to prepare his sons to get adjusted to the real world. It is a world fraught with dangers and evil people. He teaches them how to survive.

The tranquil family life is regularly shaken up with marital conflicts. These shouting bouts soon escalate into physical abuse. These latter events serve as trigger for the lad to have an intense hatred for his father. He releases his pent-up emotions through delinquent acts. He indulges in torturing frogs by tying them up in rockets. He blasts off the pointer finger of his little brother.

In his current state as a top executive, he tries to get a grip on his failed relationship with his father. He still looks up to the sky as if seeking for answers to his questions. (Director Malick is famous for his sky scenes and one of the most memorable is this film’s picturesque skyscraper scene blackened by a swarm of insects).

His father, Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt), is just like most parents who wish only good things for their kids and loved ones. They try to send their children to prestigious schools and provide them with the best food and shelter they can afford. They pray daily for the Lord to deliver them from evil and accidents. But, no matter how sheltered they are, the kids eventually get to face bullies, rumor-mongers, despicable ones, and low-life scums. How will religious, loving kids, who haven’t experienced traumatic events, react to evil things?

Mr. O’Brien’s approach is to toughened out his kids. He hones their boxing skills and teaches them to fight back. Jack obviously is a good student as he gets to make it to the top of a cut-throat world. But, it is a lonely world. There is a scene showing him all alone in a landscape that seems to be out of this world.


Amidst the search for answers, that word suddenly crops up in Jack’s mind. It will turn out to be one of the most important advices handed out by his beloved mother.

Corollary to love being the road to happiness, forgiveness is the key to surviving in an unfair world. Some people will ultimately disappoint and hurt you. The key factor is not to hold a grudge and just to forgive them. Enemies are not vanquished through fighting. They disappear when you love and consider them as friends or loved ones.

This Palme d'Or winner reminds critics of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey because of the creation scenes, wordless segments, monolith-like door in the alien landscape, life flashbacks, and the use of classical music, among other things.

Malick’s film though reminds me more of Sari Dalena’s magnificent short film The White Funeral. The lahar-ravaged landscape, erupting volcanoes, sins engulfing hearts of people, and the themes of forgiveness and rebirth are just some of the major images and topics also dealt with in The Tree of Life. The two films also feature powerful, memorable music scoring and sound effects. Both films have given me by far some of the most inspiring and uplifting cinematic experiences in my life. I can’t wait to see them again.

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