What makes a film religious? Does it need an overtly ‘religious’ theme – like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ or Pier Paolo Pasolini’s far superior The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)? What about Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments? Or the animated musical cartoon film The Prince of Egypt? Is Monty Python’s Life of Brian a religious film? Barbra Streisand’s Yentl? What about Fiddler on the Roof? We could play this game forever, but it seems to me that the category of ‘religious’ as a description of a film’s content or mood is such a broad-brush term that eventually it loses all meaning.
I am temperamentally more interested, anyway, in films whose ‘mood’ seems to be ‘religious’ rather than ones where religious themes in a traditional sense are the overt content. I think of a film like Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours: Blue (1993), bathed in the numinous, which explores in a deeply satisfying way the profoundest questions about love, loss and grief. And the marvellous meditative Korean film Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... and Spring (2003), suffused with the ethos of Buddhism, about the relationship between an old monk and a young boy.
These thoughts are prompted by Terrence Malick’s new film The Tree of Life, which has recently won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes film festival and seems to have divided viewers (and critics) into those who think it is a religious masterpiece and those who think it is an over-long, pretentious and self-indulgent spectacle. Although one might think that it can hardly be both a visionary work of spiritual grandeur and a somewhat boring and incoherent failure, I found myself inclined towards both views at different moments during the 139 minutes Malick takes to offer us what is in essence an extended visual and poetic midrash on the Book of Job’s famous question: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations...?” (Job 38:4) – God’s response out of the whirlwind to a Job bereft of answers to the questions of human suffering.
Malick opens his film with this text – the second time in the last few years that a major US film has used the Book of Job as a reference point when exploring why bad things happen to ‘good’ people, with the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man (2009) being an oblique commentary on this universal theme. But where the Coen brothers used humour to explore these unanswerable questions, there is not a single light-hearted moment in Malick’s film. There is light aplenty – including extended sequences evoking the creation of the universe and the evolution of life on earth, with growing prominence given to sunlight and trees as pointing beyond themselves to some overarching meaning inscribed in creation – a meaning which is supposed to set individual human tragedy within a larger picture of grace and harmony. If this sounds abstract, it reflects Malick’s aspiration towards creating a visual and aural hymn to spiritual transcendence – a hymn embracing a counterpoint narrative threaded around an American family of mother, father and three boys, one of whom dies.
The narrative arc of the film is fragmentary, confusing, sometimes unsettling in its emotional brutality – one of Malick’s aims seems to be to offer a critique of the cruelty encoded within human nature and juxtapose this with the potential to experience life as a gift of divine grace. There were times watching this film when I glimpsed strands of Christian theology underpinning the narrative; and when I wondered if Malick was also playing visually, and through the storyline (such as it is), with the imaginative links between sons, sun, and Son (of God).
The Tree of Life – the reference is of course to the Garden of Eden, where the etz hayyim in the middle of the garden is linked to the idea of immortality – is a film about mortality and how any of us can bear the knowledge that we will not live forever. It is a film about loss and lost souls and lost innocence. It’s a film that harks back to the Biblical myth’s ‘first family’ – man, woman, three sons, one of whom dies. It is a bold, brave and (for me) rather baffling film. I’ve never seen anything like it – and I’m not sure I’d want to again. Though I’d love to see a Jewish filmmaker take on the great themes: ‘Why are we here? Is there any overarching meaning to life on earth? What is the point of suffering? And why are Jewish men so useless at DIY?’
I would imagine that - pace the Coen brothers - a Jewishly-imagined ‘Tree of Life’ would inevitably be darker in tone: our theology, although it has messianic hopefulness incarnated within it, doesn’t offer too-easy reassurance about pain, suffering and death. But such a film might also be leavened with humour, that precious spiritual resource lacking in Malick’s hugely ambitious film.
Would I recommend The Tree of Life? It has fine acting, is beautiful shot, has a wonderful soundtrack, and is filled with visual metaphor and arresting images. You don’t want to take your eyes off the screen for a moment – and yet I left feeling unsatisfied and slightly annoyed, as if I’d been taken for a ride by a cinematic master who’d promised me the world in all its deep and tangy mystery but left me chewing on a mouthful of pious fudge.