Spiritual not religious

27 06 2011

My wife and I recently saw Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. To get right into it, I don’t think this is a religious film. Most religious reviewers would like to see films like this as a religious film since they are starved of any popular phenomena that reflect their own biases. These “religious” biases are also influenced by pietist concerns of the devotio moderna in which any given encounter must be pigeonholed into a “burning in the bosom” for Jesus, or whether or not it edifies. “Contemplation” is a whole other thing. I would argue that God is completely absent from this film, and Malick only employs religious themes only insofar as they are used to articulate a philosophical point of view.

A few words should be said about the mechanics of the film and plot. In terms of the actual filmmaking, I was impressed but not floored by the scope of the first hour of this movie. The opening scenes take us from the house of a family that has just suffered the tragic loss of one of their sons, to the creation of the universe and the evolution of life on Earth. Much of the imagery is grandiose, though I told my wife afterwards that the temptation for me was to see it in the same light as one sees those Imax presentations in museums on the death of the dinosaurs or hurricanes on the bayou. But these episodes never got to the point of kitsch in this film. Perhaps the most effective scenes came after this contemplation of cosmogony, when we see the emergence of a young family living in Waco, Texas, in the 1950’s. Scenes of birth, sleep, and play take the viewer back to his or her own childhood, and are shot with a contemplative care that make these images by far the best of the film.
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