Over the weekend, I saw the movie The Tree of Life. It’s an impressionistic story that takes place mostly in the 1950s in the midwest.
It was very impressionistic. One of those movies so laden with meaning and imagery and metaphor, that one must watch it many times over to understand what’s going on and the significance of various parts.
The movie seeks to address the question of suffering and death. The question is the age-old question that Job asked thousands of years ago: why is there so much suffering? why is there so much death?
We hear these questions all the time. Strange that we accept life and joy without thinking about it, but when the bad happens, we can’t escape the question, WHY? Perhaps we feel entitled to a life without sacrifice, given that our modern world teaches us to escape the cross. I don’t know.
But the movie asks the opposite–and, strangely, often unasked–question, too: why is there so much joy? why is there so much life?
In the movie, we are taken into the home of Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien and back to the childhood of their three boys. We witness their development over the years, and the innocence and joy of childhood are depicted beautifully.
What the movie captures so nicely, I think, is that one of the many great things about childhood is the curiosity characteristic of that age, and the reality that kids can’t help but see beauty and joy that is, in fact, very present int he world.
The film shows that sad reality that, as we grow, our ability to immediately see the grandeur in things lessens. Vision blurs, especially in the modern world that we see one of the boys, Jack, now a grown man, living in at the end. He is lost, unable to even see the good.
Except that at the very end he does. And Jack is then able to move on with his life, finally having come to terms with the loss of his brother, whose death is never explained.
Perhaps the theme of this movie is that often bad things happen, and that things do go wrong, but in the end, love and life win. The father, a patriarch who is almost abusive at times, has a sincere love for his boys–a love that he is not afraid to show. Yet, he also shows an attitude of selfishness in teaching his boys that to succeed in life is to fight for yourself no matter the cost. In the end, though, the father’s love dominates his selfishness. Love wins. Life wins. Joy wins.
As Fr. Denis once said: “It’s true, very true, that the devil has his day. And he loses.”
And so, the answer to the unasked questions, Why is there so much life? So much joy?, is this: there is so much life and joy because life, joy, and love always win in the end. Death and suffering lose.
The mysteries of death and sorrow–and the forces of life and joy that defeat them–are all part of the mystery of life. Geoffrey O’Brien of the New York Times explains the movie in terms of mystery, which makes great sense. He begin his piece with this awesome quote from William James:
One need only shut oneself in a closet and begin to think of the fact of one’s being there, of one’s queer bodily shape in the darkness (a thing to make children scream at, as Stevenson says), of one’s fantastic character and all, to have the wonder steal over the detail as much as over the general fact of being, and to see that it is only familiarity that blunts it. Not only that anything should be, but that this very thing should be, is mysterious! Philosophy stares, but brings no reasoned solution, for from nothing to being there is no logical bridge.
All is mystery, permeated by grace. And what a beautiful mystery it is.
There’s a good reflection on this movie at The Broken Splice Blog. There are also a few nice entries over at In a Spacious Place.
The USCCB has a bit to say about it, claiming it’s a spiritual movie but not a religious one, that in the end the director’s agnosticism “wins out.” Maybe I need to see it again to get that idea, because there’s a very powerful scene in a Catholic church–and the homily delivered is exceptional! A moving part is when the father is kneeling.
It’s worth a watch in my opinion.
I’ll end with this quote from Mrs. O’Brien early on: “No one who loves grace ever comes to a bad end.”