The Tree of Life ★★★★★

Is it hyperbole to call this cinema’s Sistine Chapel?

On the one hand, it’s a straightforward comparison—both this film and that painting are widely considered crowning achievements of their respective artfoms, after all, and even the very poster art for Malick’s magnum opus recalls the mosiac-like sprawl of Michelangelo’s frescoes.

But there’s more: a feeling that The Tree of Life stirs up in me that, having never been in person to the cathedral itself, captures what I imagine it must be like to enter and revel in such a place. It’s the feeling of an artist who knows the power of his craft, who embraces it not as an end unto itself, but as an instrument, a mirror. It’s a feeling I detect in both masterpieces of artistic expression; in the expansiveness of their reach and the intimate relationship between God and man that occupies their center; in the epic scope that stretches from creation to the end of time; in the very reverence of the artists themselves as it seeps through their craft, both creators knowing that through it they are reaching for something holy. This is a film throbbing with reverence, exemplified most frequently in its constant upward gaze. (How many times does Malick’s camera glide forward on a two dimensional plane before drifting upward in humble wonder at the expanses that sprawl above? Doesn’t this reflect the very way one would enter a place such as the Sistine Chapel?) Movies like The Tree of Life make you forget yourself in the face of something greater, where individuality becomes a piece to a mightier picture.

It’s also, as James concisely and appropriately puts it in his review, “The ultimate theodicy and embrace of the reformed tradition.” We are, like Job, awed and humbled as we witness the story of the world writ small through the life of one man, creation, fall, and restoration unfolding on levels both cosmic and personal. As we watch the birth of the world, so too a child is conceived and born. As nature turns on itself and falls from grace, the innocence of youth is shattered and the taint of wickedness felt. Doubt creeps in: “Where were You? You let a boy die. You let anything happen. Why should I be good when You aren't?” Brother turns against brother, father against son, husband against wife, the natural world against the industrial. It is not the way it is supposed to be.

But, in the end, the veil of suffering is lifted and the film’s opening quotation vindicated. God is at work through all of it, meaning evil for good and reconciling the irreconcilable: “I didn't know how to name You then. But I see it was You. Always You were calling me.” Brothers are reunited, fathers are shown grace in the face of their failure, sons are embraced with perfect love. The way of Grace has not defeated the way of Nature but redeemed it, and the bride is at last prepared for her groom. As the momentous final minutes bombast across the screen, a choir chants an eternal hope: “Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, grant them everlasting rest… Hear my prayer, unto Thee shall all flesh come. Grant the dead eternal rest, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine on them, with Thy saints for ever, Lord, because Thou art merciful. Amen.

And if that isn’t great art, I don’t know what is.

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