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Life and love in "The Tree of Life"

Fox Searchlight Pictures/Plan B Entertainment/River Road Entertainment
The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is one of the more profound and moving films I’ve seen in years. It is a non-linear film that weaves moments of the life of the O’Brien family in the midst of images from the creation of the universe to the death of our sun and beyond. Much like music, its images and words are scored to stir deeply in ways I don’t completely understand. Critics who praised the film see it as a masterpiece about many things. In these open spaces, it is a work of art infused with faith, glory, truth that both confronts and comforts and, above all, love.

The Tree of Life is both a visualization and personalization of Job’s story. It begins with a black screen and white words from Job 38: "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" It confronts us with intense loss in the arbitrary brokenness of the world that intrudes on each of us. As the priest reminds us in the film, suffering and death come to both the good and evil. When Mrs. O’Brien asks in the midst of profound loss, “Where were You?”  her question—our question—floats visually in the mind-boggling vastness of time and the beginnings of the universe. Where were you…? The question comes back at us—not accusatory, but a vast truth that I AM.

The Tree of Life is also about the ways God reveals himself. While we only hear directly from God in the words he spoke in Job at the beginning of the film, we see him in the trees and a cloud-bespeckled sky. We watch him in the repentance of a father who “wanted to be loved because I was great; a big man” but who missed “the glory around us” and “dishonored it all.” We watch him in the forgiveness of one brother for another. We hear him in the words of a mother—“help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive.” We feel him in the touch of small boy’s hand on the shoulder of another, the awkward hug of a father, the fierce embrace of a mother.

Fox Searchlight/Plan B/River Road
It is about the incomprehensible mixture of time and eternity. A God who spreads out at once before the beginning yet also dwells in the heart of a human whose life is but the span of a blade of grass. A God in the touch of a hand upon a shoulder yet also hovering over the Earth’s final moments at the edge of a dying star. It confounds me: God’s weaving, seeing it all spread before him and yet intensely intimate in each moment.

It is about grace and nature, the two paths we walk:
The nuns taught us there were two ways through life - the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow. Grace doesn't try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things. The nuns taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.
It is about how the choices we make not only take us down one path or the other, but also pushes or invites others down the same.

It is about that bent and broken cancer within us, sin. “What I want to do, I can't do,” says a young Jack. “I do what I hate.” It is about repentance and redemption. And it is about forgiveness. Between brothers. Between a son and a father. Between a husband and wife.

Fox Searchlight/Plan B/River Road
It is about the profound and secret lives of our children, the lives they lead apart from us, that form and shape them, the parts of their stories that we cannot control or shelter them from. Even as my children sleep in rooms mere feet from mine, their dreams are unknown to me, their thoughts cloistered. It is a breathless thing that they are their own, one that makes me both marvel and weep.

Fox Searchlight/Plan B/River Road
And it is about letting go. Of wounds and grievances, fear and selfishness. Of false security and the need to control and understand. Of questions and suffering that can’t be answered except by a Presence and Person.

But most of all, The Tree of Life is about Love. It is Love that reaches out of that vast universe, from its beginnings to its end. It is from Love that Grace flows. It is into Love that we open our hands and let go. It is Love that compels us to forgive, to reconcile. It is Love that calls to us, invites us down the path of Grace. It is because we are Loved that we love. Love is what lasts, what is permanent, what invites us through the door and on into the place after this one, what we take with us—the river that carries us home. It is Love that endures, overcomes and wins. It is Love that changes everything.

Sometimes the artist is akin to the Helper, interceding for us, doing our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. In the end, perhaps Malick’s The Tree of Life is not so much about all these things as it is a prayer in and of itself.