Malick’s ‘Tree of Life’ is award-winning film on prayer

Review of ‘Tree of Life,’ a startling spiritual meditation
Opens in NYC and LA May 27; coming to other cities soon

In the press coverage so far of director Terence Malick’s triumph at the Cannes film festival with “Tree of Life,” reporters seem uneasy about a central theme of Malick’s masterpiece: Prayer. Rather than write about Malick’s fascinating, mystical, speculative exploration of what most Americans would simply call “prayer”—journalists, so far, have been focusing on typical Hollywood news about the movie. And there’s so much Tinseltown buzz in this 138-minute movie that it’s easy to be distracted:

  • There are perpetual auras surrounding the movie’s stars: Brad Pitt and Sean Penn.
  • Then, there’s this shock: “Tree of Life” is a major feature film with so little traditional storyline that it’s more of a poem than a traditonal plot.
  • The film’s epic sweep includes stunning scenes of distant galaxies and digital recreations of dinosaurs roaming our planet—in addition to a family’s tiny back yard in 1950s Texas. It’s a head-snapping journey.
  • Then, there’s the reclusive personality of director Terence Malick who has refused to give interviews since the 1970s and is so shy that he didn’t show up at Cannes to pick up the top prize.

That’s enough to keep TMZ humming—without ever mentioning this masterpiece’s central theme: Prayer. Beyond Hollywood gossip mongers like TMZ, even serious film critics don’t seem willing to contemplate such a fine-arts approach to prayer. In the current New Yorker magazine, film critic Richard Brody stumbles his way through a very long review of the film before finally trying to grapple with the prayer theme in this awkward way:

Almost all the folks in “The Tree of Life” devote more time to murmurs, cries, and whispers, confided to us from the prison of their own heads, than to conversing with their fellow humans, and, while the result will sound to some like a prayer, others may find it increasingly lonely and locked, and may themselves pray for Ben Hecht or Billy Wilder to rise from the dead and attack Malick’s script with a quiver of poisonous wisecracks. “Brother” and “Mother” are the first things that we hear, followed, not long after, by the plea: “What are we to you?” This is uttered by the mother, although it could equally have come from the lips of Job.

Apparently, it’s impossible to call a prayer—“a prayer”—in the pages of the New Yorker and take it seriously. And, if the prayer theme in this movie actually is a prayer theme—well, then the New Yorker review wants us to know that many sophisticated viewers will hate that idea.

The truth is: The vast majority of Americans say they pray on a regular basis and prayer is a vital part of their lives. For most of us—and for honest saints like Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa—prayer isn’t a process of automatically pushing Divine buttons. Prayer often is angry, frustrating or—to borrow form Brody’s review—real prayer often is a cry “from the prison of our own heads” and often feels “lonely and locked.” If you doubt that truth, then just read more about the prayer lives of saints like Day and Teresa.

The film opened at the Cannes Film Festival in France on May 16, where it won the coveted Palme d’Or—a prize that heralded other masterpieces, including “Taxi Driver” and “Apocalypse Now.” That same day, the film’s distributors were previewing the film here in the U.S. for a handful of newspapers and online magazines, including ReadTheSpirit. We were specifically invited to a screening to judge how “the religious community” might feel about this movie.

The answer is: Most of the religious community will LOVE this film and will discuss it in small groups, sermons from pulpits, pastors’ newsletters and in a wide range of religious media. The problem, at this point, is: Most religious leaders haven’t even heard of the film.

How do I know that religious response? This week, I conducted one of our in-depth interviews with the famous advocate of contemplative prayer, Richard Rohr. (We’ll publish the Rohr interview in about two weeks, focusing on his new book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.) In the interview, I briefly summarized this movie review for Rohr, who responded: “Oh! From what you’re telling me, I’m eager to see this. What you’re describing reminds me of Mother Teresa’s dark night of the soul, which surprised so many people when they learned about it in her writings. Journalists had trouble dealing with Mother Teresa’s dark night, as well.”

The plot of this film—what plot there is—involves the tragic death of an adult son in that Texas family headed by Brad Pitt. Some media reports say that Malick himself suffered the suicide of a brother many years ago and this film is the most autobiographical of all his cinematic works. Perhaps that’s true. In any case, after news of the son’s death in the opening minutes of “Tree of Life,” we hear prayers over and over again. We hear various characters in various settings crying out to—well, crying out to Something larger than their own life. I would call that Something “God” in many scenes of the film. I would call one sequence very much a vision of “Heaven.”

But, the whole point is: You should see the film yourself and ponder the images, the faces, the voices—listen to the cries that arise across the generations of this family. This truly is a masterpiece—deserving of Cannes’ top honor. The film opens in “limited release” today. You’ll have to watch for this movie to arrive in your part of the United States. You may have to drive farther than normal to see this movie.

But: Do! Watch for it! Drive to it! See it!

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Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

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