The Tree of Life won the prize of Palme d'Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, getting polarized reactions to the director, Terrence Malick's style. Some critics uphold his artistic and technical skills while some disapprove of his fragmented and non-linear narrative. For an amateur filmgoer like me, bizarre”is the first word that comes to my mind when watching this film. Bizarre though it is, the film is unforgettable with some poetic shots leaving indelible impressions on me.
I. A Visual Manifestation of the Book of Job
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding. . . . who laid the cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Book of Job 38)
The majestic scenes in The Tree of Life serve to embody this passage. When Job desperately questions God about his undeserved misfortune, God answers him in a whirlwind, enumerating the grandeur of His Creation in contrast to human ignorance and weakness. Job is finally silenced into submission. But Job is not the only “innocent” victim of God’s mysterious way. Another “innocent” boy drowned in this film triggers the same doubt about God’s existence. Like Job, the male narrator in this film questions the justice of God, “Where are you?” ; “Does he deserve to die?” Job can only imagine the mystery of Creation in his mind when God speaks to him. The Tree of Life answers this question by presenting some awesome shots, like the big bang of the universe, the deep ocean and sky with numerous creatures, total darkness and silence, and the recurrent image of a huge, rustling tree. Always shot from the bottom, the tree symbolizes the eternity, sublimity and beauty of God’s Creation. Admittedly, this film is devoutly religious!
II. A Philosophical Exploration of the Way of Life
“There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of grace. You have to choose which one to follow.”
The male narrator in this film is torn between his parents’ life principles. His father and mother, as he confesses, impose on him two conflicting values. The former is all about self-preservation, resorting to whatever greed or violence is necessary to provide for oneself and one’s family while the latter is based on kindness, compassion, patience and forgiveness for any insult or slight. In brief, what torment him are his father’s belief of “Nature” and his mother’s faith of “Grace.” These two opposing views are constantly at war in his mind.
III. A Family Archetype
This film portrays the archetype of a family with father-son struggle, conflicting views on raising kids, loss of childhood innocence, sorrow over the death of family members and the final reunion. It’s a microcosm of a human life from birth to death. The male narrator shifts between his baby innocence, adolescent rebellion, and adult despair. In this film, the fragments of his growth, or the so-called “stream of consciousness” are intertwined without the linear order. Past, present and future are juxtaposed, like pieces of puzzle waiting to be put in their proper place. Despite the chaotic fragments of reminiscence, redemption is implied in the final scene when the family is reunited at the beach. The image of the tree is formed when the father carries his little son on his shoulder, surrounded by the mother and the adult son. After all the fighting, sorrow and disbelief, life still goes on because of love.
"The tree of life”alludes to Proverbs 3:18 in the Bible: “She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her: and happy is every one that retaineth her.” So, the tree of life, first planted in Eden by God Himself, is the one that blesses and comforts the offspring of Adam. The tree of life, which Adam is not allowed to taste, lies open to his descendants, giving them wisdom and strength to go on. The middle-class family in the film, as well as numerous innocent suffers in the real world, can get redemption only through love and forgiveness.