The religious meaning of Malick’s ‘Tree of Life’
by David Wolpe
Terrence Malick’s film “Tree of Life” opens with a quotation from Job. That quotation holds the key to the film and in some sense, the key to our attitude toward life.
In Job 38: 4,7 God asks Job “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth … when the morning stars sang together?” These verses are part of a difficult puzzle that has preoccupied believers and scholars about the book of Job. In his film, Malick is offering us a powerful answer.
Job, despite his righteousness, loses everything — his wealth and his children. In despair he wishes to know why such things have befallen him. God does not exactly answer Job — rather at the end of the book, God appears from the whirlwind and plies Job with a string of rhetorical questions. The questions seem designed to prove to Job that he lacks both power and insight. Curiously, however, God never directly addresses Job’s agonized question.
Why does God not simply say to Job “This is why you suffer?” What is the larger point God is making? There are endless, powerful and provocative speculations about this question. The one that Malick is proposing is presaged in the opening quotation.
God’s recounting of the wonders of nature can be seen in one of two ways. One possibility is that the immensity of the natural world, in its merciless indifference, has nothing to do with the concerns of human beings. The desert does not care if you pray, and the rushing cataract will not pause for pity. Nature shows its blank, grand face to us, and we are nothing. Indeed Job recants of his protest, proclaiming “for I am but dust and ashes.”
In the wake of the terrible loss depicted in the film, the loss of a child, Malick offers coruscating images to remind us of this indifference. In their sweep and range they awaken us anew to our insignificance. But gradually we see that each image, from the cell to the cosmos, is not only grand, it is beautiful. The second half of the quote from Job, how the morning stars sing, remind us that the appreciation of wonder and beauty is also possible. We may lose our ego in nature’s indifference, but we may also lose it in nature’s magnificence. Do we see the world as heartless or as sublime? The drama of our life and death is fleeting, but it is played out on a stage of unparalleled wonder. Pain which can be so consuming, is not all; part of the secret of life is enlarging our hearts.
The agony of the parents, the periodic cruelty of the father — all are the powerful but passing dramas that for the moment entirely preoccupy us as we watch the movie. But then we are drawn back to a world so much bigger than our hour upon the stage that we know again how essentially small is each human story.
The great Dutch writer Harry Mulisch died this past year. Once asked the secret of life, he responded “make the puzzle bigger.” Malick makes the puzzle bigger, and so expands our sense of the intricacy and beauty of the world. In reworking Job for the 21st century, he teaches us anew of the grandeur of the world, and the grandeur of God.