Sunday, June 26, 2011

"The Tree of Life"

“Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation... while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

A beam of light unfurls.

THE TREE OF LIFE is a reflection on the meaning of life. What is the filmmaker trying to say? That is highly subjective. Aside from an opening narration that cues us in on the theme, the director leaves it to the audience to form our own conscious or subconscious impressions on the images he presents. Each audience member brings their own experiences which informs the meaning for them.

This is a challenging film because of the nonlinear structure that shifts between time and space, three different character's points of view, and nature photography. After the screening, I overheard someone respond, “What the Hell was that?” This review is for the “What the Hell was that?” crowd or anyone else who could benefit from cliff notes in order to enjoy this surreal film. I don't pretend to understand it all. This is just my interpretation drawn from my own memories and recounting similar images from science programs.

The filmmaker uses this opening narration to give us a handle on how to understand the nature images and memories to follow. The mother meditates, "There are two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace. We have to choose the way we will follow.” Basically, nature is competitive and only cares for itself while grace relies on a sense of oneness with all of existence.

Soon after the opening images and narration, we witness the family getting the news that one of their three sons has died. The Father, Mother and their oldest son try to make sense of the loss. This brings on a lot of soul searching about how the children were raised and inspires prayers requesting understanding of the meaning of life, suffering, and death.

This may be a good point to see the movie yourself to create your own impressions.

139 minutes later. Now, for my take on it....

The Mother's narration suggests that there are two ways of experiencing life – one through nature and the other through grace.

The Mother represents the “way of grace”- our connection with all things, unconditional love, empathy, and freedom of spirit. Scenes of the Mother and her children playing and exploring the wonders of nature are interwoven with footage of nature showing that they are interconnected. The Mother teaches them to see the world through the eyes of the soul.

The Father represents “the way of nature” that is competitive and only out for it's own survival. The father tries to toughen up his sons by teaching them to fight. He demands that they hit him harder, “Hit me! Hit me!” and finally knocks the older boy to the ground. He lectures that you can't be too good if you want to get ahead. “It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world.” But the Father forces his children to bend to his will by enforcing overly strict rules. “The way of nature” is also represented in the animal world by a scene where one dinosaur happens onto a wounded dinosaur. He demonstrates his dominance by holding down the weaker animal's head before walking away.

But the father's competitive nature isn't working. He is unsuccessful in his life. He never misses a day of work, yet he is laid off from his job. He never even pursued his dream of being a musician. He has lost the connection with his sons. They are so suppressed that when the Father goes on a trip, the family celebrates by running free and purposely breaking all his rules.

The older son struggles to find his place in the world. “Father, Mother, always you wrestle inside of me. Always you will.” As the architect of his life, he designs skyscraper buildings with steel walls separating him from nature and relationships. It is only when he sees a tree being planted outside the building that he remembers the tree that his parents once planted for him.

I believe the true message of the film is that “the way of grace” and “the way of nature” are connected through unconditional love. At one time the family was very close - embraced by both the Mother and the Father. The Father and the Mother loved their young children unconditionally. It was only when the Father tried to impose his competitive will that the family fell apart.

The film interweaves happy memories of the birth of the children, the family's early years, and exploring the wonder of nature with spectacular images that show the formation of the universe such as planets, the big boom, volcanic activity, and the beginnings of life under the ocean. In all this grandeur we sense the presence of God. If we just let go, it's almost as if our consciousness is connected with the beginning of time.

The branches of that tree now reach up to the sky – as if nature is reaching to touch God.

Movie Blessings!
Jana Segal

Movie trailer:


Reel Inspiration said...

I mentioned in the review that the filmmaker leaves it to each viewer to bring their own interpretation of the film. I happened onto a Christian study guide that had a completely different slant on, "The Tree of Life."

You can check out the study guide at:

Reel Inspiration said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Reel Inspiration said...

Tom Shadyac's doc, "I Am" also explores the meaning of life. He has a different slant on the "way of nature." He believes that it is in our DNA to cooperate and take care of each other. He presents examples from the animal world that demonstrate that cooperating is a means of survival. A scientist performs an experiment that shows that people have a positive physical (emotional) response when they watch the scene from, "It's a Wonderful Life" where the whole village helps George Bailey. We are wired to feel good when we help each other. So "the way of nature" and "the way of Grace" are one and the same. Connecting with each other through kindness makes us happy.

Check it out for yourself at:

Angeline D'Balentine said...

That's really interesting how you talk about the mother and father. For me reading that I could immediately understand between those representations and the use of the big bang and the dinosaur. I haven't watched this film yet; traveling and location hasn't gifted me the opportunity to see it yet. But in reading this review and along with a fellow film friend in the Detroit area going nuts over this film, I am more intensed to to see this now. I get a sense of the use of metaphoric images that mother and father actually represent the balance of our existence in this Universe - the masculine and the feminine. One cannot exist without the other. I love films that use metaphoric images to portray a much deeper meaning and point. And I find it funny how people like the one who walked out saying "what was that about" have to take a bit more patience and alternative thinking to grasp it. I find that even more intriguing. Sometimes such films (or art projects) have just that effect. It can take weeks, months, maybe longer for it to suddenly give that "Ah ha!" moment. And that is where the beauty in such films exist. Hence, my love for art and the utilization of film... what it can do to the human soul. You know the director of this film he had taken an absence from film and went to Paris back in the day. His story is very interesting. Thank you Jana for this review. I cannot wait to see this!

Reel Inspiration said...

Angeline, thanks for the comment. I love the way you summed it up, "I get a sense of the use of metaphoric images that mother and father actually represent the balance of our existence in this Universe - the masculine and the feminine. One cannot exist without the other." I wish I had said that! You rock!

Josh V. said...

This film moved me. Having spent the last few years piecing together my own belief system (I was raised ambiguously as agnostic), it was fascinating to see it through the eyes of a child - especially a child in such pain.