Tuesday, 6 September 2011

The Tree of Life - some thoughts

Contains spoilers...

We had a great response last night for Reel Issues, when the church hires the local cinema and puts on a film with discussion afterwards.  Terrence Mallick's The Tree of Life is a film to divide people.   Booed and jeered at in the Cannes Film Festival this year, it also won the Palme D'or - go figure.  Some critics give it 5 stars, some 2.  One comment we had last night was that 2 seemed generous.  Empire Magazine's verdict is: "There is simply nothing like it out there: profound, idiosyncratic, complex, sincere and magical; a confirmation that cinema can aspire to art."

And it truly is beautiful to watch.  I'm so glad that I saw it on the big screen, I'm sure that on DVD it will inevitably lose some of it's punch.  It is beautifully and expansive photographically and real treat, as Mallick explores the every day glory of the world.  One of the character's laments about life is that he "dishonoured it all and didn't see the glory". 

It looks lovely, but what does it mean?  Peter Bradshaw, reviewing the film in The Guardian, comments, "The Tree of Life may well come to be seen as this decade's great Christian artwork."  It opens with a quote from the book of Job.  In Job 38: 4,7 God asks Job "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth ... when the morning stars sang together?"   The context is that Job has lost pretty much everything and is asking God why.  God basically pulls rank and reminds Job that he doesn't know nearly as much as he thinks - who died and put him in charge?  God alone knows the answers to some things.  The question of suffering in the film is mainly in connection to the death of a boy and the effect that it has on the surviving family.  "Lord, where were you?"

So Mallick looks at the question of suffering and meaning - not to mention where we come from and where we will end up.  You can't say that he is unambitious.  His 17 minute sequence showing the creation of the world is quite something to see on the big screen.  Where we go after our life on this planet seemed more confused to me but I would be the first to admit that I didn't understand everything in this film.

I've not seen it mentioned elsewhere in the few critics I have read but it should be noted that The Tree of Life is first encountered in the Bible.  Mainly at the beginning and end of the Bible (Genesis and Revelation) with some less important references with regard to the film (I think) in Proverbs. 

In Genesis the tree of life stood in the centre of the Garden of Eden (2.9), but once human beings started doing their own thing and ate from the neighbouring tree (of good and evil) they needed to be kept away from the tree of life.  So in 3.22-24, God expels Adam and Eve from the garden and places a guard on the tree of life, it's now off limits.  

At the end of the Bible it's clear that believers in Jesus have access to the tree of life as part of their reward.  (Rev. 2.7, 22.2, 22.14).  In other words, the tree of life symbolises eternal life with God.  We lost it in the garden, we can get it back in the end, so long as we are on the right side. 

But how do we know we are on the right side - what do we have to do.  A strong theme of the film was of two different ways to live.  The way of grace and the way of nature.  The film explains grace as to carry on loving, giving, helping - whatever and to whoever.   A memorable line is that "The only way to be happy is to love.  Unless you love, your life will flash by".  We see the Mother very close to her children, giving a drink of water to a man in handcuffs - an allusion to Jesus' words - and forgiving and loving pretty much throughout the film.  Nature is the way of Dad, seemingly distant from the kids and instructing them to get ahead by their own means, even at the expense of others.  It brings them into conflict with each other. 

The film contrasts grace and nature and makes a strong case for grace.  It's the word the Bible uses for the kind of love and kindness that we get even if we don't deserve it.  It's what the Bible says we get from God if we accept that Jesus was punished instead of us for the wrong, dumb, and dirty things we have done.  And we all need that - even the mother in the film messes up sometimes.

I'm sure there is much more that could be said, it was certainly interesting to get up and try to lead the discussion afterwards - the first time I have had to do so without having seen the film first.  If you haven't seen it on the big screen I would say it is well worth it.  Others, of course, might disagree! 


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