Terrence Malick’s Film Adds a Dose of Sincerity to the Festivities

CANNES, France — In “The Tree of Life,” a cosmic head movie of the most ambitious order,

Terrence Malick. In a career spanning almost four decades, Malick has directed six feature films. Numerous critics consider Malick's films to be masterpieces.

Terrence Malick reaches high, his ecstatic camera and thoughts soaring. Shown on Monday morning at a press screening at the 64th Cannes Film Festival, where it was met with pre-emptive, harshly insistent boos and a vigorous rejoinder of equally determined applause, the film directly addresses the larger questions of existence that are woven throughout Mr. Malick’s work. It seeks to affirm the beauty of a world in which God is present in all things.

“The Tree of Life” is Mr. Malick’s first film since “The New World” (2005), a title that could work for this new movie as well. Running 2 hours 18 minutes, it is a personal, impressionistic work — beautiful, nonlinear, trippy, flawed — that unfolds largely in fragmented flashbacks, tracing not only the arc of a single life but also that of creation itself. As the title suggests, Mr. Malick has nothing less in mind than the origin of life, a beginning (or Beginning) in which vaporous swirls, gurgling lava and fiery explosions give way to the sight of a meteor hitting a planet (presumably Earth), an explosive vision that Mr. Malick audaciously, riskily, joins with the image of a pregnant woman’s belly.

The issue isn’t merely that Mr. Malick visually connects the impregnated planet, as it were, and the expectant woman, an association that sets a Mother Earth motif in motion. It’s also in the seriousness and sincerity with which he makes this connection: The film is an affirmation of Mr. Malick’s belief in the power of cinematic images to express the sublime (the cinematographer is Emmanuel Lubezki) and, perhaps, of his faith in the audience to meet him with equivalent seriousness.

It also serves as a reminder of how few contemporary filmmakers engage questions of life and death, God and soul, and risk such questioning without the crutch of an obvious story. It isn’t that these life questions aren’t asked in our movies; they are, if sometimes obliquely. Rather it’s the directness of Mr. Malick’s engagement with them that feels so surprising at this moment, and that goes against the mainstream filmmaking grain.

It’s this bluntness, along with the stunning, kaleidoscopic images of outer space (some derived from the Cassini mission to Saturn), that summoned up for me Stanley Kubrick’s cosmic explorations in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Certainly the films are different — formally, experientially, qualitatively — yet each also concerns concepts of God. In “2001” God has been replaced by science, which with the emergence of the monolith, is ultimately confronted by a different (extraterrestrial) God altogether. In “The Tree of Life,” God is everywhere and nowhere — in a ray of sun, a blade of grass.

The film opens with a quotation from the Book of Job — “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?” — taken from a passage in which God, like a hectoring, aggrandizing father, challenges Job with questions. It’s a section that Walt Whitman, as readers of the poet have long pointed out, seems to answer in “Song of Myself” (“In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass”), a work that Mr. Malick may have drawn on, given how both the poem and the film exult in a cosmic oneness with the world and are more circular in form than linear. Any number of the poem’s lines (“The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag”) could describe images from the film.

The rest emerges elliptically, including an early scene of a woman, Mother (Jessica Chastain), receiving terrible news of a death. Shortly after in film time, though years later, her oldest son, Jack (Sean Penn), now middle-aged, reflects on his childhood, a meditation that involves fiery visions of primordial life (dinosaurs included) and leads to the image of his mother’s pregnant belly. This family portrait eases the film into a sustained, mostly pacific interlude from Jack’s childhood with his two brothers, mother and father (Brad Pitt). It’s an imperfect Eden, however, one in which an angry father and gentle mother roam instead of dinosaurs, and, for better and sometimes worse, embody the tug between nature (a father’s harshness) and grace (a mother’s love). It’s a beautiful if hermetic vision that I admire for its ambition if finally not for its philosophy.

By MANOHLA DARGIS, The New York Times

Terrence Malick (born November 30, 1943) is an American film director, screenwriter, and producer. In a career spanning almost four decades, Malick has directed six feature films.

Numerous critics consider Malick’s films to be masterpieces. Some critics have even hailed his movies as among the greatest films ever made. Malick was nominated for an Academy Award for both Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director for The Thin Red Line.

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