“A Man’s Reach
should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?” This quote, taken from Robert Browning’s “Andrea del Sarto,” seems distinctly pertinent to a film that’s been a source of debate, detailed analysis, probing introspection, and uncharacteristically inspired writing in the critical community over the last few months: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which bowed at Cannes in May. After anticipating it and doubting it in equal measure, to the point of nearly talking myself out of viewing it in theaters, I finally caught up with the film last week. Roger Ebert has called it a form of prayer; Michael Phillips says it may be the most overtly Christian mainstream picture since “The Passion of the Christ.” With statements like these, it became clear to me that this is a film which will occupy some, if not a considerable amount of, space on this site. Yet, to my disappointment, I’m completely ill-equipped to dive into it after one viewing. I’m not sure what I can say, in any case, that you can’t read in Monohla Dargis, Todd McCarthy, Anthony Lane, Richard Corliss, or Scott Foundas, among others. Malick has really sparked some of the best writing critics have to offer, particularly in the summer season. At this point, I’ll just say that it’s a nobly ambitious film, attempting, as Ebert writes, “no less than to encompass all of existence and view it through the prism of a few infinitesimal lives.” While I’m generally not a fan of affording more praise to a film based on the merits of its goals rather than its accomplishment of them, this is a case where the filmmaker truly creates a film that needs to be seen, even if it emerges, to use what is likely a worn-out accolade, as a flawed masterpiece (or an “insufferable” one, as David Denby writes).
Certain stretches are thrilling and moving, just as others are overlong and confounding. Brad Pitt, giving what I would probably consider his best performance to date, offers a real richness of emotion that counteracts some of Malick’s more cerebral sequences, thus hitting the audience at a more guttural level. The acting all around is outstanding, acquiring a naturalness of behavior that is rarely seen, especially with child actors. I wish I could delve into the spiritual aspects of the film (some might call them Christian; some might call them pantheistic), but I need to see it again to do it any justice. I will say that I wouldn’t call it a “Christian” film, and not for reasons having to do with its evolutionary view of history or its near worship of nature. While it’s overtly spiritual in the sense that it’s raising the big questions, many of them spurred by loss and tragedy and grief, I don’t find that it falls into any sort of camp where the answers are concerned. Its spiritual view is finally an elusive one, or one of amalgamation, that concludes with a hippie-like scene on a beach that’s less than satisfactory. I’m not criticizing it, to be clear, for not offering simplistic answers. I just think that calling it “Christian” is to succumb to the temptation of reductions which the film admirably, if at times infuriatingly, avoids. Whatever you call it, it’s a work of big ideas, beautiful cinematography, and lived-in performances. What else could you ask for? Well…more narrative, I suppose, and less trees. But this is Malick, one of those rare poets of the cinema, and you get what you might expect.
I urge you to check it out, if you’re so lucky to live in or near one of the limited number of cities available. There’s a lot to chew on, and I’ll certainly be revisiting it on this site. On a side note, I thought this quote from David Denby was very interesting:
“Explicitly, Malick offers a Christian view, and a doctrinal view—the way of grace, as the mother whispers right at the beginning. But “The Tree of Life” raises an ornery question: Could another movie, a worldly movie with jokes, sex, work, society—everything that Malick ignores—also capture spirit? Could a secular temperament capture it? A temperament acting outside of religious doctrine?
I admire “The Tree of Life” enormously, but I think it would be less than candid if I didn’t say how far away from it I feel emotionally. At the end, speaking to God of her dead son, the mother raises her arms and says, “I give him to you.” The moment is lovely, and, as an apotheosis of feeling and belief, it’s fully earned by the rest of the movie. But let me say categorically that no woman I’ve known could raise her arms and yield up her son to any God whatsoever.”
I think this relates to a lot of what we’ve talked about in previous posts. Denby is essentially faulting Malick for being too Christian and not secular enough. If The Tree of Life is too Christian, how much more so are actual Christian films? Denby and Anthony Lane both imply that Malick unfairly creates an idealistic view, one to which we dirty, passionate, selfish beings can’t relate. Can secular movies “capture spirit?” If you read some of my posts, it is obvious that I believe they can. Many of them do, in fact. The real question for me is: can a film capture spirit in the midst of a secular world instantly identifiable to audiences, and at the same time offer a distinctly Christian view that tells of redemption from such dirtiness? I think such a film can be made; I just don’t think one has been made. That, it seems, would be a work of true ambition. From the reception of Malick, it is clear that people are more than willing to digest spiritual content on screen. Where the line can blur from “spiritual” to “Christian” without polarizing the religious or the secular is a question not easily answered. This borderland should inspire us to at least try, for if our grasp never quite equals that of our reach, there is a God to make up the spatial difference.