The Tree of Life (2011): Where are You? How Can I Endure This Frail Existence?

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10/10

Every great story is a stroy of pain, and The Tree of Life is no exception. It is a story of unbearable and chronic discomfort: the pain of life, growth and death, or to put them together, the pain of mortal existence. It is difficult to reivew this movie in one short blog post, but I think it is worth a try, for the movie deals with the most fundamental pain of human existence, or should I say the worst kind of pain among all. After reading John Haught’s New Cosmic Story (refer to my review here), I watch the movie The Tree of Life again because I find their themes overlap to some extent. I have to admit that the 2011 religious movie is not the easiest to follow, especially when I am not a Christian or have properly read the entire Christian Bible before. Its references to Christian symbols looked rather alien to me, and its idiosyncratic style involving cosmic evolution puzzled me when I first watched it some time ago. It is not surprising to me that the movie debuted to controvercies, with many film critics feeling unsure about its content and style, or whether it can be dealt as a film in any conventional sense. The movie nevertheless won the prestigious Palme d’Or and has been regarded as one of the contemporary masterpieces.

The secret to its charm, to me, is its intimacy in addition to a mysterious sense of awe, wonder and gratitude.

The story begins in a small, quiet town, where an ordinary family lose one child due to an accident. Seemingly dramatic, no words are used to describe their sorrow in the movie, but I can still sense their grief through their gaze. Quietly but distressingly, how can the parents forgive themselves? They question what they have done wrong to deserve such punishment from God, and they wonder whether God still have mercy for them. Neighbours comfort the mother that they still have two children, and they can move on, but the mother refuses: she wants to feel the pain, because some pain just demands to be felt. Several decades later, one child grows up but is still haunted by his brother’s sudden death. He can still feel his brother calling him in his dreams, but he does not know where exactly his brother is. He can even see his brother – alive and ageless – waving his hands and smiling to him. He wonders if he is still haunted by his brother’s death, how his mother can ever go through such pain.

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The movie suddenly then turns into a visually resplendent cosmic documentary narrating the journey from the Big Bang to the current stage of human civilisation while summarising billions of years in just a few minutes. It is definitely a daunting task to accompalish, but I sense that the director carefully chooses several key moments in the cosmic narrative. The mother’s voice narrates gently in the background: Where are You? What are we to You? The short documentary is not a clear answer, but it provides some directions to answer those questions; it is a search for the ultimate truth and existence in this universe. It asks questions related to the origins of goodness/evil, beauty/ugliness and life/death. With just a few minutes, the short clip goes through several miracles in this universe that human beings cannot comprehend: the beginning of the universe as well as the formation of galaxies, the Solar system and eventually organic creatures on earth. More intriguingly, the universe has facilitated the rise of morality (like a dianasour feels compassioante towards another dying creature), and complex emotions such as humanly love and God-consciousness.

The universe seems to present these events in sequence, and it is reasonable for us to guess whether there exists another form of being which takes control of the whole universe and keeps human civilisation on a pre-determined track. Who has planned all these? If there exists such a being, where is He, and what are people to Him? This is the point where the movie overlaps with Haught’s thought-provoking book: a sense of cosmic optimism and faith in the existence of a conscious being in charge of the whole universe. Modern sciences have done an excellent job explaining the physical interactions between particles and even the evolutionary process, but they overlook the interior aspect of the universe such as the awakening morality and human subjective emotions. Just like what the mother eagerly questions the univse: Where are You? What are we to You? If someone has planned everything for the entire universe but refuses to communicate with people directly about his plan, human beings struggle to make sense of their mortality and suffering. Are sufferings, like the death of one’s child, meaningful in any way? Does God demand sufferings? Does God even care about people when they are so much weaker as compared to Him?

Even if I grant the meaningfulness of suffering, the question still remains: given this mortal, frail existence, how should people spend their lives? The movie explores two choices: one of nature, and the other of grace. The father is clearly living according to his nature while seeing society as opportunistic and competitive; in contrast, the mother is living by grace, by forgiving mistakes and mischieves of others. The mother is convinced that people will not suffer from bad consequences if they choose to live by grace. Everyone has a choice to make: although the sense of righteousness calls people to act by grace, people cannot escape their greedy, opportunisitic nature. The reconciliation seems possible in the movie, with the grown-up child apologising to his father and understanding his father’s intension (or a style of upbringing resembling someone who lives by nature). The movie ends in a poetic statement regarding life and death. The grown-up man finally finds his dead brother on a beach and joins him. Is the director suggesting that life and death are one and the same? Or is he suggesting that there is nothing to fear about death, an event that awaits everyone and is even worth celebration? Such connections between siblings, or such love, are immortalised by the movie, and hopefully that gives people some comfort for their mortal existence.

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The Tree of Life is an intimate work of art. It reminds audience of the confusion or sometimes the unbearableness that everybody feels on a personal level about growth and death. I remember a teenage boy touching a bra for the first time. He sinks his face into the bra while not daring to make any noise. I remember his eyes staring at his father, fearfully and revengefully, on the dinner table after his father demands salt and pepper. I also remember the mother stepping into a forest seeking redemption from tree trunks, the symbol of time. These scenes are often accompanied by no words but only minimalist piano melodies. It does not present any message in the conventional sense for audience to interpret, but it authentically exposes everything in front of audience for them to feel every subtlety. I feel their vulnerabilities and pain; I am reminded of my own struggles and secrets. That’s the magic of The Tree of Life, it does not send any universal message, but it allows individual responses and imagination. It is clearly an experimental work challenging the boundary of film as a often overly commercialised form of modern art.

The Tree of Life also carries a mysterious sense of awe, wonder and gratitude. It is a message sent to the ultimate existence of the universe; it is also a message sent to every struggling human being who has endured this frail mortal existence. People currently have no way of knowing where He is, nor can they decipher how He regards them as. Nevertheless, He has left indirect hints, as cosmic optimism suggests: the birth of morality, the longing towards beauty, spirituality and eternity, as well as a wide range of subjective feelings such as love, jealousy and guilt. The cosmos may still be a myth to be deciphered, but The Tree of Life reminds its audience of the sense of awe and gratitude diluted by modern sciences and human’s irrational confidence in his rationality. The Tree of Life in this sense is a magical film that is worth watching multiple times. It answers no questions but only summaries them. It narrates the most fundamental pain of human existence and gets inspired by it. It does not cure the pain; it exposes the pain, which is surprisingly gorgeous.

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