Cinema exists by causing entertainment. Good cinema takes advantage and causes cinephilia. Then there is cinema so good that it urges filmmaking and causes cinema itself. The latter has a responsibility. Let us talk about director Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), a movie that continues to reign as one of the finest metaphysical meditations of cinema.

A lyrical sentiment connects the life of a Texas family in the 1950s to the cosmic beginnings of being. A film follows the life journey of the eldest son, Jack (Sean Penn), a successful businessman who finds himself spiritually lost in the modern world. Looking for answers to the origins of life, hoping a case against nothingness, his angry young heart even questions the basis of faith as he flashes across the fields from days of innocence and childhood to failing and falling reconciliation with his father (Brad Pitt).

It was during the cold December of college days and on the eve of Netflix that I first watched The Tree of Life, the deeply spiritual and existential storytelling that embodies the luxury of American filmmaking. This movie is like a prince who walked into the middle of a raging battle and came back unhurt by the vagaries of the commercial.

Very much like Andrei Tarkvosky, Malick’s film language is mostly about emotional delivery and is least bothered by the soundness of the plot. Unlike Tarkvosky, Malick was never in exile. Except for one of his choosing: never having given a single interview about any of his movies since 1979.

The plot of Tree of Life is centred on three boys in the 1950s. Jack the eldest son of Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain witnesses life against decadence. Chastain informs the simulacra of choice – between ‘the way of grace’ and ‘the way of nature’. This has been taken from The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. Not surprising in a film which is said to be Malick’s most autobiographical work.

The camera starts to trace the evolution of Jack. At first the world is wonderful to the child’s view. His eyes are lucid and made of his mother’s soul eye. Chastain is the way of love and mercy, whereas Pitt tries to teach his son the way of the world, choosing nature, choosing self. Both the way of grace and the way of nature swirl in subtle rollercoasters around Jack until he himself witnesses decadence and suffering, meaninglessness and death of one of his brothers.

Despite impressive backing and immersive use of the IMAX camera, the movie foregoes computer generated effects and uses chemical based special effects for all the cosmos scenes. This it does with utmost fineness, as the narrative evolves into pure contemplation and celestial-metaphysical navigation, riding on chemical slides and macro lenses on often backlit panels of cinematic history.

This works in laying the worldview for Jack. A soul is lost in the face of unbelief, of individuality, trying to grasp the unchanging and eternal in a canvas where everything is ever changing. Unless of course the soul grasps the eternal, and gives meaning to the tree of life. It is through the eternal that the remaining scheme makes sense. Perhaps the grasping of the eternal is where the first two acts of the film reconcile in the third.

Highly spiritual and very conscious of the existential paradigm, The Tree of Life like most Malick’s films causes discomfort to the comfortable. His elated lenswork is at all times threatened by the complexity of the editing structure. The strongest of his character arcs have no pillar support of moral correctness or defence against temptation. Malick allows the arcs to succumb to violence and lose bearing. He allows the antithesis of Christ to lurk around every beat. Like the scalded flesh on the head of Jack’s childhood friend.

The movie and its celestial experience end in hope, conceding to the beauty and joys in daily bread and the daily life, converging focus most to the lifelong kindergarten of our lives, truths and lies: the family.

The Tree of Life is a must watch if you like Jallaludin Rumi, Thomas Aquinas or Saint Augustine. You let this unique lyrical poem first raise an emotion in your viewer and then an emotion in the view. A movie that like all Terrence movies converges to become an individual with an everyday choice: war and destruction vs. future hope, and reconciliation.

The Thin Red Line (1998), another Terence Malick masterpiece ends with these lines, perhaps explaining what the director has encountered again and again:

“Oh, my soul. Let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining.”

Ali Kirmani is a journalist and aspiring film maker from St Stephen’s College, Jamia Film School and JNU. His endeavours are supported by his wife Asma Jahangir who is a PV scientist