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Nature or Grace? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter Johnston   
Wednesday, 04 April 2012 18:36

Tree of Life Film Poster

Last night I finally gave up on awaiting the DVD delivery of the film "The Tree of Life" from LoveFilm - which has been on my rental list for months - and ended up purchasing a copy from the Playstation Store to watch via the PS3. I'd been wanting to watch the film since it won the Palme d'Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011, as its themes of faith, our place in the universe, the nature of God, love and grace, and some mind-bending imagery from science's current understanding of the origins both of the universe and life itself seemed extraordinary. That the film also starred Brad Pitt and Sean Penn made it even more intriguing.

Well, it certainly is quite a movie. I thought it was fabulous, but I can totally understand why some people would get utterly frustrated with it. Some have thought it to be pretentious rubbish, others have said that it provides a poignant glimpse into eternal questions, others declare it a masterpiece. I tend towards the latter camps, but the film no doubt demands some sacrifice from its audience in order to make the most of it. This is not your typical Hollywood blockbuster! [There's more...]

The movie is long, over two hours, and does not follow a traditional narrative structure, bouncing around almost in a dream-like state as we follow the life of Jack O'Brien, one of three brothers raised in 1950s Waco, Texas. That seems a pretty parochial setting, but the imagery does not stay static. We have flash-forwards to current-day Jack, questioning his own existence, his relationship to his parents, and the presence of God. We have a flash-forward to the very end of existence as we know it, to the end of the universe. And we have flash-backs to the moment of creation, the Big Bang, the formation of galaxies, suns, planets, the moment of life beginning in the primordial chemical stew on earth, right up to the moment of birth of Jack himself, and the fascination of his father gently holding his son's wrinkled foot.

We have voice-overs that give fragmentary clues to the inner-lives of Jack and his parents, as they all raise the big questions that we all ask about life.

Right at the start, however, in the first minute or so of the film, Mrs O'Brien's voiceover sets the scene for the rest of the film:

The nuns taught us there were two ways through life - the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow. Grace doesn't try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things. The nuns taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.

In the film, Mr O'Brien, Jack's father, represents "nature". Brad Pitt puts in a fantastic reserved performance as the father whose initial love for his children turns increasingly towards anger, wrath and judgement. He encourages his boys to fight back, teaching them how to punch, and talks about winning success, about achieving by hard struggle against others. Doing good is not the way to success. There are moments of frailty too, as when he admits to one of his boys that he gave up his dreams of being a professional musician in order to get a regular job. But, particularly as we look back with Jack at his own childhood, we see a distant father who, while a devoutedly church-going man, praying and tithing his income, finds it so hard to express his love for his children, filled instead with rules and instructions and judgement when these instructions have not been obeyed to the letter. The few moments when the father asks his sons whether they love him are wracked and deeply uncomfortable.

These scenes sit amidst stunning imagery of creation and "nature" in a Darwinian natural selection sense where the strongest and most fit are most likely to succeed. As an older middle-aged Jack looks back on his upbringing, he sees his father in this harsh light. Jack notes how he too, as a successful architect (I think!), has taken on many of the traits of his father, his use of power against those who are weaker (remembering times when he persecuted his younger, and now deceased, brother), and a violent and abusive streak that sometimes appears.

In contrast, we have Jack's mother, played by Jessica Chastain, who represents "grace". She is the one who provides joy and laughter. There is a lightness when she is around that does not exist when the father is present. She provides life, of course, but also nurtures and cares and seeks to encourage. The unconditional love of the mother continues on when the love of the father becomes ever more dependent on conditions.

Ultimately, as Jack looks back on his life, still hurting and grieving the loss of his brother, and questioning the purpose of faith in a world that allows such suffering, he looks to his gentle and compassionate brother and mother as his doorway into a hopeful future, and has to turn away from the wrathful and angry judgement of his father.

Yet as the film represents "grace" through the mother we also see a grace that is frequently dominated by the "nature" of the father. There is a terrible scene where the father unleashes his anger against one of the boys and the mother is unable to stop it, instead the scene ends with her being held tight by Pitt's character as he whispers repeatedly "stop". It seems that power and force win the day.

The film begins with a quote from Job “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? ... When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4,7) And there is a sense throughout the film that we are so small, us wee creatures, and the Universe is so vast beyond our understanding. What right do we have to ask questions of our purpose, or the nature of our being, and of God's presence? Yet, we too are the creatures who have the ability to ask these very questions. We can transcend what is "nature" by living the way of "grace". This is the gift Jesus brings us. It is the gift that the church should stand witness to, and it is the gift that is so often betrayed by those, like the father in this film, who yet cannot move beyond "nature" to living truly in a state of grace. Of course, in the film Jack reflects on the models given to him by his two parents, and from thence to faith and God: which of the two models is God like? It is an extended, beautiful parable.

I could not help but reflect on the cross we used during the Calderside Academy Easter Assemblies which, though we used different terms for it, also tried to clarify these different ways of living.

For sure, it is a message that is repeated each Easter season as we reflect on that moment of grace when new life is expressed. Perhaps it is not for all, but I suspect for those who come to Terence Malick's film prepared for a different kind of cinematic experience, that they too will sense what that life of grace can be.

It certainly made me think twice about my own life, about being both a brother and a father, and the things which I wish I had done differently, and the things I hope to be able to do in the future.

I'm definitely going to watch this one again.

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