Tree of Life

Yggdrasil – the Norse Tree of the World

Someone once remarked that cinema has become the new religion, with sacraments and doctrines. High-profile hits such as “The King’s Speech “or “Inception” inspire followings so devoted that disparaging remarks are seen as heresy. To criticise is to cast aspersions on someone’s fundamental beliefs, the very core of their existence, like a religious war in which neither side will tolerate the other’s gods, or lack the of them. Terrence Malick [Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005)] collected the Palme d’Or in Cannes with ‘The Tree of Life’ which people either loved or hated.  A few walked out on first screening of this vast, cosmic landscape upon which, if we choose, we can write our own narrative. To binarise the film in terms of a Beavis and Butthead ‘cool or sucks’, ‘like or dislike’, misses the point. It has been described as emotionally thin, American faux-angst, faux-reflection, taking longer and longer to say less and less. This too misses the point. Saying less is the whole idea. This is not a spectacle, it’s an interactive experience on a galactic scale. It evokes deep childhood resonances and intimate memory echoes – down to Beatrix Potter and hosepipes on summer afternoons, slowly drawing us to the central themes of innocence and loss. Brad Pitt is the embittered, tyrannical and unfulfilled father who once dreamed of becoming a great musician, trying to teach his sons that the way to worldly success lies in aggressive pursuit of perfection. Mother, (Jessica Chastain), believably saintly, offers the reverse paradox of Job, presenting us with a typology of goodness without reward.
The boys are encouraged to respect the violence of their father and secretly despise their mother’s gentleness, so that fear and love fuse in uneasy and strange paradox. The film contains bizarre symphonic passages of non-narrative spectacle, vast Hubble galactic images, impossibly high waterfalls, prehistoric jungles, Kubrick writ large. Most strange was the wounded dinosaur lying prostrate and helpless beside a river while another dinosaur comes along, plants its great foot on the other’s neck before moving heedlessly on. Is this the only message of the universe – pure survival? But then how is it we seem to want something other than survival? What do we want to survive for?
Five big stars. A masterpiece.

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