Jude Thaddeus L. Bautista
“The Tree of Life” by Terrence Malick is one of those films that has to be viewed in the cinema. One has to be immersed in the powerful and moving images that he uses to tell a story. The aurora-borealis-like transitions will never cut it in the small screen. You have to see the glowing colors in front of you and above to fully experience it. The glowing colors could be more than just transitions, they could represent God himself.
The film has won the Palm D’Or at the Cannes fest earlier this year. As the winner it is the closing film of the French Film Festival held at the Shang Cineplex of Shang Rila Plaza. The French Embassy’s Audio Visual Attache Martin Macalintal credited Pioneer films for helping with the screening of “Tree of Life”. Pioneer is the only local distributor of European films in thePhilippines. It’s opening in Manila theaters tomorrow June 22, 2011. Although this particular film is from Hollywood, Cannes is one of the few fests that celebrate an artistic achievement of this kind. Even if Brad Pitt may be the producer, the story and treatment of the film is an antithesis of the typical Hollywood formula.
In spite of the religious implications and the focus on an American family, there’s a strong universality to it that anyone can relate to. Since it may have been so intensely personal, people could see and feel the reality of those experiences in their own lives, in their own families.
Our interpersonal relationships are representative of our relationship with the universe. Brad Pitt as Mr. O’Brien, the father in the family is humankind, the nurturing mother (Jessica Chastain) as nature. Children have that conflict with their fathers, as men do with each other. Mr. O’Brien works as a manager in a factory. What they make isn’t clear except for the three giant industrial chimneys that stretch endlessly to the sky. His place of work could be anything from a nuclear power plant to a weapons facility. What’s clear is that it is imposing, unnatural and destructive.
The mother, Mrs. O’Brien is played by the hauntingly beautiful Jessica Chastain with auburn hair, freckles. She’s eternally young even at different times of the film when her kids grow up. We accept it because that’s who she is. She plays and runs around with her three active boys like an older sister, every moment with her is pure bliss. She has a lot of metaphorical scenes, underwater, on the beach, walking barefoot in the desert, always loving and caring for the family. During these scenes, they are accompanied by the best lines, “The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love your life will flash by.” Or , “There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.” She doesn’t deliver the lines as spoken dialogue but as voice over, the images that accompany them are spectacular landscapes, seascapes, sometimes with her in it. Audiences see and feel what she’s saying, even when it’s not two talking heads in a more ‘conventional’ movie.
Growing up in the 1950’s in the town of Waco,Texas was almost like paradise. Jack (Hunter Mc Cracken), the eldest of three remembers those years. The memories with his siblings swimming in the river, riding their bikes in the fields, climbing trees were the best moments of his life. As a grown up he realized that everything went down hill from there.
Technically, the cinematography of the kids growing up was the best and most touching. That says a lot because there were so many nature shots which were nothing short of visual poetry. Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki was able to portray stark realism, devoid of lighting effects or elaborate studios or soundstages. He made the everyday scenes of playing on the lawn with a dog so accurate and yet captures the emotion of the joy in doing it. Lubezki also revealed in an interview with French magazine Les Cahiers Du Cinema, that Malick is working on a six hour version expanding on the growing up years of the kids. Sean Penn as the grown up Jack is one of his most unforgettable roles. While he hardly has dialogue, his performance was based on facial expressions, the way he walked, even his posture. This was the dejected, jaded middle aged Jack.
Don’t be surprised or shocked when portions of the film are just images and classical music. The scale of this film in terms of the concept is beyond epic. It spans from the creation of the universe to the elusive definition of “now.” Give yourself time to absorb the meaning, hours or days after watching. That way your enjoyment is deeper and lasts longer, you can spend hours talking about it with other people who’s seen it.
We have to be grateful to Malick for being able to even think the way that he does in showing the human experience in the context of creation and the universe. Who would dare write about it let alone make a film that shows it as a story? The images span from the beginning of time, when stars formed, our solar system to single celled organisms, going through dinosaurs then our time. Again the immersive experience of being enveloped by the images on the silver screen is needed for “The Tree of Life.” Shang Cineplex has earned the reputation of hosting the most prestigious films with this Malick masterpiece only being the latest.