Looking for God in ‘The Tree of Life’

By Sister Helena Burns, FSP | Contributor
Sunday, June 5, 2011

Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life” is simply one of the most extraordinary films ever made. A film of this stratospheric caliber comes along every, oh, 20 years or so. Malick has broken some kind of film barrier. He has found a way to substantially set film free. “Tree of Life” is also a perfect Father’s Day movie.

In his movie, Malick tells the story of a family with three boys (the story is narrated by the eldest, Jack, played by Hunter McCracken) growing up in the 1950s with a stern father (Brad Pitt), and a loving mother (Jessica Chastain).

Dad is not a monster, however. There are many loving moments with the boys and we can understand where the dad is coming from. Nevertheless, his sons are still watching and listening to his shortcomings, small and large. Pitt is spot-on as this flawed father who claims to be loving his sons while often putting first himself, his own ambitions and fragile self-image.

When I say the eldest boy “narrates,” it’s not your typical voice-over. There are also whispered prayers to God. Although told in a beyond-brilliant kaleidoscope of small scenes, the story is very strong.

How does God speak? He busts out all over, permeates everything and is as silent as planetary movement. He is known by Jack first through the people of faith who raised him — thanking God with grace at meals, worship at church, courage in tragedy, pointing to the sky “where God lives.”

The older Jack (Sean Penn) has an adult faith, but keeps going back to his young self to pick up the threads. His faith is not fragile. It’s awakening and blossoming, always fuller like God’s revelation of himself, God who swims with the strangest red creatures in the bluest oceans and belches forth orange and black fire and smoke from a lava pit.

There are no technical gadgets in this movie. People are unmediated. People just sit and wait. People look at each other. People read each others’ faces. People talk to each other, but most communication is nonverbal. The eyes have it. People stare. People touch each other. We witness the long thoughts of childhood. These are the days when we did one thing at a time.

Church bells toll and operas rage. Nothing is ordinary. We look and look again. The universe is one big cathedral.

Where is God? Well, he’d like to ask you the same question. (See Job 38:4. The film begins with this verse.)