Tree of Life

Tree of Life

Well, in our very own household we have diametrically different views of Tree of Life. About halfway through the interminable (20 minutes, actually) sequence of the creation of the universe, I turned to my husband Dick and said, “I bet you hate this.” He, not taking his eyes off the screen, said, “I like it.” I said, “You’re kidding!” but when he did not respond I realized he wasn’t kidding so I shut up. I didn’t say anything more except a few “What did he say”s (my hearing aids did not help with the numerous voice-overs). Oh, and when the people were wandering about on the beach in a seemingly detached stupor I muttered, “last year at Marienbad.”

At the end I turned to Dick again and said “Well, what did you think?” Again, he said, “I liked it,” which is very high praise from Dick. As a devout and faithful Christian he saw numerous strong references to the divine story and was moved.

I agree that there are numerous such references but I thought the movie was tedious, pretentious, and incoherent. Admittedly I have a low tolerance for inspirational nature photography, and that is such a huge part of the movie that I can’t detach it in order to assess the rest. I was somewhat thrown off balance by the use of the traditional liturgy, as for instance when the children are all confirmed at once (despite their different ages) with the great, much-missed traditional prayer “Defend O Lord this thy child with thy heavenly grace…” and I will admit that it appears the children were indeed mysteriously defended with heavenly grace. The church scenes were an odd blend of Episcopal, Roman Catholic, and generic Protestant elements not particularly convincingly put together. The name of Jesus is never heard, certainly not at the end of the family’s traditional table grace, yet the Lord’s feet appear (I think) on the beach.

Few moviegoers will recognize that the beach scene is accompanied by the Berlioz Requiem and that the Latin words are saying, “Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world…eternal rest grant unto them, and let light perpetual shine upon them.” It seems to me that these words make a great deal of difference, but if people don’t know them, they are going to have a “religious” experience without content. Dick thought the final scene suggested rectification (a better English translation for the Greek dikaiosune than “justification”) but by that time I was so irritated by the movie’s longueurs that I couldn’t appreciate that suggestion. All in all I thought the extensive use of classical music was overly grandiloquent. It called too much attention to itself, as for instance when the “Moldau” erupts while the children are playing in the sprinkler.

I will admit that the evocation of the small town (Waco, Texas) is lovely and evocative. The scene of “Kick the Can” certainly brought back strong memories of my childhood in the forties, the time in which the movie is set. I found myself wondering repeatedly where in the world do the movie studios keep all those old cars? But none of that authenticity made up for the internal incoherence–not for me, anyway. We never even learn the facts about an early scene that sets the stage for what comes later.

Parenthetically, I am a great admirer of the director’s The New World, about Pocahontas and the settlement of Jamestown. It also has an extremely slow, dreamy pace but a much better narrative arc, and the authentic setting in Surry County, Virginia (near where I grew up) is used to evoke early America, not vague spirituality. As far as I am able to ascertain, The New World hews very closely to the actual historical facts. The final scene, when Pocahontas goes to London to be presented at court, depicts her in the identical costume that we know she wore in real life, and I must admit it gave me goosebumps…it brought her very close.

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