Life in Hand

“The child is the father of the man.” – William Wordsworth

“The nuns taught us there were two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.” – The Tree of Life

This weekend, I finally had the time to catch up on some movie-watching. Although The Tree of Life may not have been the best choice to watch while recuperating from a cold, I’m glad to have seen it.

If you’re looking for a film with a clearly identifiable plot and progressive action, then this is probably not the movie for your Saturday night. Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life  (2011) “reads” more like a Salman Rushdie novel: lyrical, intensely visual, nonlinear, at moments solemn, at others grandiloquent or psychedelic.

Quick shots and voiceovers show the fragments of memory that form Jack O’Brien’s childhood and his effort to make sense of grief and growth. In Jack’s family, loved ones die and cruelty reduces physical presence to a shadow. The best description I can give for this film is that it shows the search for the way of grace in the midst of the way of nature.

Call it a “coming-of-age” story or a tale about grief and the loss of innocence, this film, to me, is all about the images. There is something in the movement of nature—be it a flow of lava, natural hot springs, the sun rising over the curve of the earth, or the logarithmic spiral in a snail’s shell—that fills the gaps in language.

Yet through all of this, human touch remains central.  Hands are a prominent point of focus in The Tree of Life. A caress, a blow, or a brush of the fingers zooms in from the epic scope and pauses there. Compared to the expansive space and time Malick explores elsewhere, these moments are tiny and insignificant. However, as emblems of humanity’s potential to choose what Mrs. O’Brien calls the “way of grace,” they leave, at least for me, the film’s most lasting impression.

A thought-provoker, to say the least.

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