Sat 11 Jun 2016
I had this film recorded on my cable TV memory device for quite a while. I was quite curious now to see it with my own eyes, after the dust of the extreme reception it enjoyed settled. Some of the critics I mostly admire declared it no less than a masterpiece. Among them the late Roger Ebert, although I must say his review deals a lot with similitude of the story and heroes with his personal experience. The film was also decorated with awards. Yet, many other reviews seem to incline of the other side. Mine included.
The story in ‘The Tree of Life’ is about the childhood and coming of age of a young boy in the Mid or South of the United States in the 50s or 60s. It is a little strange to say ‘the story’ as director Terrence Malick seems very little interested in story telling. What we see developing is a very Oedipal relation between a strict father (Brad Pitt), and the elder of three brother kids, with the mother (Jessica Chastain) becoming the moderating and caring member of the family, and an object of interest in the growing pains of a rebel teenager. I have no problem with story telling in different than chronological order, I have seen them all in movies – personal perspective, reversed chronologies – but in this case the logic was hard to grasp, and some details remained obscure to me. Did both younger brothers die? One drowning as a kid, the other at the age of 19 (his death is announced in the starting segment). If so, why does the first dead brother appear again and again after his death on screen? Are these supposed to be events that happened before his death? Or does the director intent to say that his presence continue to be with his family even after his death? All this is left in fog, and I am not sure what higher purpose this ambiguity serves.
There are two more plans in the film. One of them shows the elder brother many years later, remembering his young years, still in guilt and in an uneasy relation with his father (not clear if still alive either). Sean Penn‘s character seems somehow disconnected from the rest of the film, and from his young incarnation (huge performance by Hunter McCracken). The most talked segment is the one that shows the origins of the Universe – it’s beautiful video art on Gregorian songs music, but I failed to be very impressed for two reasons. First, it’s not extremely original, the association with Kubrick‘s ‘2001, A Space Odyssey’ that was often made shows this, but what made sense in a space saga is less fit to a mid-America family drama. The disconnect of the three plans, or four plans if I count the after-days final is the principal problem of this film. Its length, the story telling style, the lack of logic made the experience quite boring to me, despite of the beauty of the cinematography.
On the positive side I need to mention the good acting. Brad Pitt is at his best in the role of the tough but caring father, mirrored in his son with the same failure to communicate beyond the strict rules of American fathering. Jessica Chastain provides a strong emotional counterpart, with delicacy and femininity. None of the two talk much, but they are real and alive characters in a dead (but colored) setting.
I read that at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, the screening of ‘The Tree of Life’ was met with both boos and applause. The film ended by winning the Palme D’Or. I am afraid that if I were in the audiences, I would have been among the protesters.