At first I didn't understand how Tree of Life, the film by Terrence Malick, could be getting such lavishly favorable reviews in the establishment media when it supposedly is a "spiritual" work. So I saw it.
I now understand it to be a work of highly original cinematic art informed by a Christian sensibility. Maybe (as some tell it) Terrence Malick, the son of an Assyrian Christian immigrant, is not religious. Regardless, his work speaks for itself.
But, everyone is free to draw his own conclusions. Roger Ebert, famous critic from the Chicago Sun-Times, in the course of an ecstatic review, somehow concludes that the movie is about--ahem--evolution.
"'The Tree of Life'", Ebert writes, "has awe-inspiring visuals suggesting the birth and expansion of the universe, the appearance of life on a microscopic level and the evolution of species. This process leads to the present moment, and to all of us. We were created in the Big Bang and over untold millions of years, molecules formed themselves into, well, you and me."
For one to find that hack job Darwinism in The Tree of Life he has to ignore the opening frame's quotation from "Job" (as creative fire burns): "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?" One also has to ignore the whispering voice overs by various characters in the O'Brien family featured in the film, and especially its child--and later its adult--protagonist (Sean Penn), who plaintively demand of someone, "Who are you?" "Where are you?" "What do you want from us", and, poignantly during a scene of children at play, "Are you watching us?"
One also has to avoid the O'Brien family, without irony, praying before meals, praying together at church (and the father praying alone in church) and on other occasions. The boys get bored in church, too. But in the unself-conscious way of the faithful, the O'Briens recognize God as real and present.
The Tree of Life is, indeed, about the formation of the universe and the rise of life on Earth. It also is about the adult wonder of human babies and children's wonder over everything-- sunbeams and shadows and rustling curtains. It is about innocence, temptation, the fallen nature of Man, and reconciliation. It's about parents--especially fathers and the now-strange role through which an old fashioned man (Brad Pitt) expresses his responsibility and love for his sons. "Father," "Sir", is always in charge, lecturing, tender, but sometimes vehement and tough. When he loses a job and confronts his failures, he humbly whispers on voice-over (if not to God, to whom?): "I have dishonored you, and missed the glory all around."
Near its very beginning (in quiet voiceover) the film says life is about "nature" and "grace". You can have them together. It would be hard to imagine grace--who would need it?--without nature. But it is a conceit of materialism that you can have nature without grace.
That noted, The Tree of Life communicates to the filmgoer outside logic and script--almost entirely in metaphor and memory. It does so with vivid, abstract strokes at one moment and languorous pastel details of 1950s Waco, Texas the next. Maybe its subliminal arrival at truth is why The Tree of Life has circumvented the secular censorship that normally would bar it from respectable company.
The film ends with waterfalls and Smetena's stirring "Moldau" strains (that also appear in the Israeli national anthem). Then comes what must be seen as Malick's vision of Heaven--joyous reunions on a beach, a choir singing Berlioz' "Agnus Dei". And then...a stunning picture of a modern bridge, that symbol of continuity, and, if you will, borrowed intelligent design.