The riches of Terrence Malick


We need a break from the culture wars. In the Middle Ages the Church tried on occasion to get the warring feudal kings, princes and barons – or whatever – to take time out from their seemingly endless wars. They tried to promote what in my Irish language history class was called a ‘sos cogadh’, if my memory, and my Irish, serve me right. It was a kind of ceasefire, literally a rest from warfare, like we tried to have between the IRA and the British security forces in our local Irish ‘troubles’ here at end of the last century.

So a unilateral ‘sos cogadh’ it is, for a few days at any rate. We will take a break from Abortion – sorry, Amnesty – International, same-sex marriage, Donald Trump Vs Hillary Clinton, corrupted education systems, ISIS, European football and all those stressful topics.

We will take a dive into the deep end of the cultural reservoir and reflect for a little on the deep, deep cinema of Terrence Malick.

I was moved to do this by a piece I read some time ago on the Aleteia website, posted on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the release of Malick’s magnum opus, The Tree of Life.

There, Matthew Becklo reminded us that when The Tree of Life hit movie theatres the responses were all visceral. “Some hailed it as an instant classic; others dismissed it as pretentious garbage; and a whole lot of people left the theatre scratching their heads.” He himself is in the first category and in an effort to win over those who either hated it, or were just plain confused by it, he gives us a few reasons to give this beautiful artefact another look in 2016.

His first reason is the verdict of that authoritative voice, the late Roger Ebert. Before he died, Ebert included it in his list of the ten greatest films ever made. Ebert said “I believe it’s an important film,” and will only increase in stature over the years.”

Not only has the film done so but it has done so because with the passage of time and the opportunity that this gives for revisiting it, not just once or twice but many times, you will see further into its depth with each viewing. The real reason for this is that Malick’s later films are not just rooted in the human. They connect us in some way with the divine. They are in fact prayers. They do not shy away from the sensual, albeit with delicacy. Neither does the Song of Songs. In all this Malick’s work bears a great affinity with those other masters – whose influence has had a bearing on his art – Robert Bresson and Andrei Tarkovsky. Ebert in fact wrote, “Terrence Malick‘s new film is a form of prayer. It created within me a spiritual awareness, and made me more alert to the awe of existence.”

Malick’s two films since The Tree of Life do exactly the same thing, each one taking a different angle on our existence. To the Wonder explores the mystery of love, not just human love but divine love as well – and the mysterious point where the two meet. The Knight of Cups takes us through the terrifying capacity of our kind to destroy ourselves in the pursuit of pleasure – with Hollywood as the metaphor for evil. The evil is not so much in what it produces as in the environment into which it sucks all those who participate within it.

But it is not just the spiritual meaning of Malick’s work, not just the way in which he explores the connections between our actual existence and our struggles with our destiny, which spell-bind us. It is the visual presentation of this. Here his co-artist plays his part. He was Emmanuel Lubezki, the first person to win the cinematography Oscar three years in a row: for Gravity (2013), Birdman (2014), and The Revenant (2015). He was nominated for his work on The Tree of Life – but the Academy was a bit off that year so he did not get it, nor did they. Lubezki has been Malick’s cinematographer since The New World, that other metaphorical work which explores in the tale of Pocahontas the complexities of the troubling reality of colonisation and multiculturalism.

For Matthew Becklo another compelling reason for revisiting the film is that its meaning is easier to follow the second time around. He observes that “The visual grandeur of The Tree of Life was enough to distract anyone from its storyline. But Malick also experimented freely with his characters and their locations, creating what many saw as an overly loose narrative. Even Sean Penn was displeased, remarking that ‘clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film’.”

“Malick,” he says, “does ask his viewers to keep their eyes (and minds) open, but he won’t leave them in the dust when they do. On a second viewing, the storyline becomes crystallized, and separated out from the more poetic sequences. This opens the door to a deeper dive into the meaning of the film as a whole.”

Robert Barron has produced a short YouTube essay on The Tree of Life in which he explores and comments of the themes of this visual and poetic masterpiece of cinema. Barron shows us how it is also a deep reflective work of natural theology. Perhaps The Tree of Life might be the best way of bringing us to a permanent ‘sos cogadh’ in our infernal culture wars?

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