The Tree of Life

 

Tim Middleton reflects on theodicy and the search for meaning through the 2011 film ‘The Tree of Life.’

 

 

I am not sure what to make of The Tree of Life.

 

Terrence Malick’s 2011 film is certainly different, and it has received polarised reactions from critics. It won the Cannes film festival’s Palme d’Or, and it is listed in the BBC’s top ten films of the twenty-first century. Other reviewers, meanwhile, have described it as ‘self-absorbed’ and ‘achingly slow’.[1]

 

It is also pointedly theological. Words from the book of Job frame the entire narrative: ‘Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth… when the morning stars sang together?’ One theologian describes The Tree of Life as, ‘deeply Christian… mesmerizingly lovely, and almost alarmingly biblical’.[2]

 

The film opens with haphazard fragments of a family’s grief. Sepia tones and hushed commentary add to the bizarre feeling of disconnection. It seems appropriate for the senselessness of mourning. Job’s notorious comforters come to mind as one realises with horror that someone has just told the mother of a dead child (Jessica Chastain) that she, ‘still has the other two’.

 

After the initial, intense focus on personal loss, the film then leaps to the cosmic scale. A montage of twisting nebulae give way to planetary formation, and volcanic churning. This is the universe in its raw, uncultured originality. Surely human stories are insignificant on a stage of these proportions. Biological forms materialise. Yet the peculiar sense of the disturbingly inhumane is continued by an explicit focus on the weirdest of underwater creatures. These are Malick’s Behemoth and Leviathan in all their Attenborough-esque, multi-coloured glory. But then, these scenes, too, receive an abrupt truncation in the form of an unyieldingly accurate Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction event. No mercy for the dinosaurs either.

 

Another handbrake turn: we are back in Texas, following a marginally more linear progression through Jack O’Brien’s childhood (Hunter McCracken, and latterly Sean Penn) and his increasingly tense relationship with his father (Brad Pitt). Apparently formative moments are relayed: the drowning of a schoolfriend, an act of vandalism, and his teenage sexual awakening. Jack’s father and mother are portrayed as simplistic archetypes for the ways of nature and grace respectively: one authoritarian and combative, the other thankful and forgiving. And in the audio, a boy’s ongoing, God-searching refrain: ‘where are you?’

 

As we judder towards the conclusion, the moment when Jack’s brother must inevitably re-die, the final scenes of the film are the most thought-provoking of all. Human characters are seen in motion on a beach. This tidal zone provides a fittingly liminal setting for a re-enactment of the paradox of life—between birth and death, nature and grace, meaning and chaos—our characters continue their seemingly random, Brownian walks. Assemblages coalesce: bodies exchange looks, one human embraces another, meaningful family units appear to form—only to dissipate again in the continuing flux.

 

What are we to make of all this? Is Malick intending to answer Job’s opening question or not? Are nature’s grand machinations supposed to validate God to humanity? Or is the trite, visual onslaught (and its glaring insufficiency in comparison to the reality of human misery) supposed to parody biblical theodicy?

 

The staccato cinematography never stops: the whole two hours consists in only kaleidoscopic crumbs. Even the film’s advertising poster was a mosaic of apparently unrelated images. For some, the disjointedness of the postmodern might all be too much. My own perplexity, however, was something much more banal. If I am brutally honest, I was a little bored.

 

But when I began to reflect on this a little more, it struck me that boredom was just possibly precisely what I was supposed to feel. Malick’s point is that different vignettes make different sense. The shards of meaning are from separate mosaics. When you zoom out to look for a cohesive whole, the sense is lost. The longed-for God’s-eye perspective is simply boring. We make sense of the human condition from within the world, not by attempting to abstract ourselves from it. Furthermore, if we had all the reasons and justifications at our fingertips, then there would be no hope of real transformation. We would already know the best that could ever happen—and that is a depressing thought indeed. No, we must remain open to what is beyond. And Job’s beyond is not necessarily our own beyond.

 

[1] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/filmreviews/8623873/The-Tree-Of-Life-review.html

[2] https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2011/07/seven-characters-in-search-of-a-nihil-obstat

 

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God’s Own Country: Learning a Language of Grace

Through the film ‘God’s Own Country’ (available online here), Andrew Bennison reflects on grace, speech and Christian life.

 

God’s Own Country (2017) is not, despite the title, an overtly religious film. Set on a struggling farm in the Pennines, it is a captivating story of loneliness turned into intimacy, played out against the backdrop of the rugged Yorkshire landscape. Twenty-something Johnny (Josh O’Connor) is the disaffected protagonist, shouldering the burden of running the farm following his father’s stroke, under the tight-lipped scrutiny of his grandmother. It’s an unforgiving way of life. Conversation in the farmhouse is clipped and economical: blunt Yorkshire idioms disclose a stoic resignation to life’s hardships and disappointments. For Johnny, escape takes the form of oblivion: binge-drinking and anonymous sex.

Into this world comes Romanian worker Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), hired to help Johnny with the lambing season. Soft-eyed and pensive, Gheorghe brings a tenderness to the task which unsettles Johnny, who responds with a mixture of aggression and attraction. Their first sexual encounter is rough, urgent and wordless. But as the tenderness which Gheorghe shows to the animals is patiently held out to Johnny, a relationship develops in which Johnny becomes haltingly yet visibly alive. Like the new-born lambs taking their first fragile breaths, we see Johnny being awakened from the deadening effects of loneliness and monotony, both tentative and giddy in his new surroundings. As his father suffers another stroke and the family’s situation becomes even more precarious, Johnny discovers that he needs Gheorghe – a need that runs much deeper than merely keeping the farm afloat. Johnny’s struggle to voice this need marks the climax of the film, and it is only the risk of losing Gheorghe forever that brings him finally to admit it.

Above all, it strikes me that God’s Own Country is a story about learning to speak. The central irony is that the person who finds a voice is Johnny – the one who, initially, wields his coarse Yorkshire dialect as a weapon, defensively charged with xenophobia and machismo. It is Gheorghe, the outsider and non-native English speaker, who teaches Johnny how to speak. A further irony is that Gheorghe teaches Johnny mainly through silence. Through his searching and steady gaze, he coaxes Johnny to new depths of honesty. With his body, he patiently shows Johnny a new way of communicating, shaping his lust into tenderness, aggression into vulnerability, and fear into trust. The few words he says are simple but penetrating, often capturing a truth that Johnny has yet to articulate: ‘It’s beautiful here, but lonely, no?’  Through Johnny, he teaches the whole family a new language of honesty and truthfulness. In a poignant scene, Johnny washes his father in the bath after his second stroke, applying the sponge with a new-found gentleness and attention. His father touches his hand and says simply but meaningfully: ‘Thank you’.

Christian faith involves, I think, a whole series of new discoveries. Principal among them is the task of learning a new language – a new way of speaking shaped by grace, and shorn of fear and self-assertion. Often this may involve very few words, relying instead on habits of touch, attention and hospitality. In such ways, our ‘speaking’ (in a broad sense) becomes genuinely sacramental: a conduct of grace through which God can teach others the same language. This mutuality is reflected, I think, in St Paul’s words to the Corinthians: ‘We have spoken frankly to you; our heart is wide open to you. In return, open wide your hearts also’. (2 Cor. 6.11-13).

The challenge, of course, is that in this new way of speaking, someone has to speak first. Watching God’s Own Country, I found myself reflecting on my own experience of ‘coming out’ last year. The gift of a new-found honesty about myself was the opportunity it provided for speaking a new language, a language of truthfulness, and giving others the permission to do the same. The difficult thing is that very few people will begin the conversation. You have to risk speaking in a way that others might find strange and threatening. And you have to risk speaking first.

In God’s Own Country, Gheorghe speaks love into the life of Johnny. He speaks attentively, silently perceiving Johnny’s hidden pain. He speaks with courage, patiently enduring the risk of rejection. Above all, he speaks with grace – he makes it possible for Johnny to find his own voice. The film left me wondering how Gheorghe learnt to speak this language of grace, and how, in my own life, I might learn to speak it too.