Every once in a while, you see a film which is dynamic, powerful, deep and mysterious, so deep in fact, that it fills you with wonder and hope. If you are patient and prayerful, you don't need a film to understand this, but here's a film which communicates these things and shows an unbelieving world how to pray. As one reviewer puts it, it's the Alpha and the Omega of films. A testimony to its power, its grace is this review from the Village Voice This film is so great that people will be talking about it for decades. It will be far more transformative and influential than Kubrik's Space Odyssey.
[Boxoffice] Free flowing detours into the characters' thoughts, dreams and fantasies, including a prolonged sequence detailing the creation of the universe and earth (complete with Jurassic Park-style dinosaurs) leave no question as to the presence of a central mover whose omnipresent hand guides the actions of all things living and inanimate. More subtle is the film's stylistic bifurcation—surreal, dreamlike sound design and a camera that never stops moving except to call attention to things small and beautiful, and even then only from a vantage no human could hope to share. From a purely technical standpoint, it makes for one of the most audacious aural and visual works of the last half-century, boasting Oscar-caliber work not only from previous collaborators like cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and production designer Jack Fisk, but from a virtual army of sound and picture editors whose work here is stunning.
Editor: The film is a powerful religious allegory, and it's overtly about a troubled family living in the mid-to-late Twentieth Century in the Southern United States with faint hints of the coming social upheaval resolving in very cold and dystopic future. The tension resolves between the stern father and the whimsical mother as the son and his brothers are growing to manhood and struggling with their Catholic faith. It also is about the eldest son's attempt, played by Sean Penn, to ask forgiveness, reconcile with his father and grieve for the death of his brother whose death has haunted him, "every day". Moreover, his greatest desire is to reconcile with God, as he laments. The halting and uncomfortable phone conversation shows Penn's virtuosity as an actor as you are drawn into the story of a man who wants to reconcile the horrors of life, death, his anger at his father, his love for his mother and brother, and the inexorable branches of creation on the tree of life. It is at this point that the film effortlessly, as if the priest were to finish the Confiteor, where he pronounces his unworthiness before God and man, cotinues with the Gloria, and we are in the springtime of the Penn's childhood, his parent's love for one another, conception, birth and idyllic childhood full of Joy.
Ultimately, this film is about God's love for his children. One reviewer even suggests it's God's apology for Himself to mankind. For behind and beyond the scenes of creation depicting scattering stars, the cooling of the primordial earth and a masterful cinematic narration of the birth of life which opens a rhythmic movement of powerful forces and terrible forces, as if the act of planting the seed of creation, in the big ban, is like a flower exploding and downy pollen floating through space like a majestic unfurling of unimaginable glory, there is an explanation. Interestingly, like God, the family father is a musician. This sound track is amazing. No small wonder then that it was booed and cheered at Cannes and other places where it's played. Despite this, the film has had very strong reviews at Rotten Tomatoes. As opposed to a science film-strip vision of a cold and Godless universe, we are presented a vision that is Liturgical as the film's music featuring Mozart's Requiem, Transcendent, the patterns depicting creation, life and death are like shadows and miraculous manifestations. Most importantly, the film is Sacramental, the waters representing purification, healing, the tree reconciliation, all knowledge and the great orb of the sun calling to man's mind the Eucharistic species, burning as if from a monstrance. The unmistakeable and recurring symbol is the circle as seedling, conception, birth and death, not only as a source of life and hope, but a striking symbol of the Eucharist. In this sense, the film perfectly captures the symbolic and sacramental nature of creation where God uses signs and wonders, even of a natural kind, to communicate Himself to man, and even as Penn's character as a child repeats his lamentation as if before the throne of God, yet behind a shroud of mystery, almost lost from all hope. but still reaching like St. John of the Cross of St Teresa of Avila, yearning for understanding the grown man feels that sorrow which Christ once felt in the Garden. This terrible beginning takes place amid the sadness of personal loss and is symbolized by the main character's reminiscing on a tree below which becomes a meditation on life and death, hence the beginning of the allegory which arises from the opening citation from Job and a meditation on the tree of life:
"[Wisdom] is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her, and happy is every one that holdest her fast." (Proverbs 3:13-18)
This director, Terrence Malick, an Assyrian Christian, is coming from the "Thin Red Line" and as many commentators are quick to point out, owes much to the work of Stanley Kubrik's darkly existential Space Odyssey. Most critics have made this observation, and surprisingly have failed to see similarities in the lyric and powerful work of Andrei Takarovsky, who also deals with themes of God's manifestation, reconciliation between father and son, and man and creator. Many Orthodox Christians and Catholics will sense the great Russian spirit in the natural scenes and the polyphony, will feel the charity of God drawing him to a sacramental plane. Here the film even employs the same images of water and underwater fronds waving mysteriously, hypnotically back and forth to the haunting funereal polyphony to create dappled landscapes evoking the scriptures, the mystery of the Divine Liturgy and the Love of God. Not surprisingly, Mel Gibson had a part in the production of the film which was withdrawn before the project could be complete, but his mark is unmistakeable.
The film begins with the death of the nineteen year old son and the grief of the family and the eldest son played, amazingly, by the older Sean Penn who reflects on the death of his brother in the back ground of a dystopic and cold modernity. The film effectively interjects phrases from Mozart's Requiem with subtle phrases from Lacrymosa as the child's voice asks God, "where were you".
While the beginning of the film does not try to obscure the unease those who believe in God must have at the suggestion of the size of the cosmos and the depths of time, and the brutality of the natural world as animals attack one another, you can not but feel empathy for even the dinosaurs from the pre-historical treatment of the film, for as one reviewer says of the film, there's a trace of Grace in the brute force of nature. Even creation itself has a capacity for purification and holiness.
You won't come from this film feeling like you'd received a death sentence from your Doctor. You'll come from this film wanting to love your neighbor, those closest to you, especially your enemies who are, after all, more like yourself than you might wish to admit.
Not to spoil the ending but the film ends like Mozart's Requiem Mass, both thematically and musically.