10 Transcendent Moments in “Life”
It’s been about a week since The Tree of Life came out on DVD/Blu-Ray, which means lovers of the film like me can watch, re-watch, dissect and pause to our heart’s content. As I’ve reflected on the film (I think I’ve seen it about 8 times now), I’m no less awestruck by its beauty now than I was in the beginning. It’s a film overflowing with the sublime, the transcendent, the holy. I’ve heard others call it a worshipful experience and I certainly concur.
The following are the scenes that get me the most, each time I watch Life. They are, in my opinion, the 10 most transcendent sequences of the film. WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.
Jessica Chastain’s opening voiceover sequence (1:55-4:17). “The nuns taught us there are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace…” These words from “mother” launch the gorgeous opening monologue of the film, set against images of childhood, cows, sunflowers, waterfalls, swinging from trees, and accompanied by the haunting and foreshadowing voices of Tavener’s “Funeral Canticle.”
Creation of the universe (19:45- 23:45). Following the death of her middle son, Jessica Chastain closes her eyes in grief and prays: “Lord… Why? … Where were you? … Did you know? … Who are we to you? … Answer me.” This prayer is beautifully, painfully juxtaposed with images of the birth of the universe: swirling purple gases, turquoise nebulae, celestial stained glass. Witnessing these awe-inspiring cosmic beginnings is like having a window into God’s creative process. And set to the mournful, operatic music of Preisner’s “Life: Lacrimosa,” it’s downright worshipful.
“Life of my life” (34:40-36:00). Immediately after the dinosaur scene, and as a transition out of the “history of creation” sequence, Chastain’s voiceover resumes: “Life of my life… I search for you… My hope … My child.” This is accompanied by Berlioz’ “Requiem” and magisterial images of Saturn, Jupiter, and an asteroid on a collision course with earth, bringing death to the dinosaurs and an ice age to the planet.
“When did you first touch my heart?” (37:10-39:10). Part of the beauty of this scene is that it follows the grandeur of the universe’s birth with something just as glorious: the birth of love, and the birth of a human baby. In this sequence, set to the achingly beautiful music of Respinghi, we see mother and father falling in love (Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt), followed by what might be the most powerful, abstract cinematic depiction of a human birth ever. The baby’s birth is intercut with images of children being led through a forest by a woman in white (we see her at various points in the film… I take her as some sort of Holy Spirit figure), and a little boy swimming upwards through a submerged house (a motif we see a few other times in the film… Watch carefully at the end).
The boys growing up (47:00-50:10). Set to the stirring, full-of-life music of Smetana’s “Moldau,” this sequence, which starts with mother pointing to the sky and saying “that’s where God lives,” manages to capture so much truth and vitality–of life, of boyhood, of growing up–in a brief montage of the boys being boys: playing in the grass, playing with hoses/sprinklers, lighting sparklers, jumping on the bed, kicking the can, climbing trees, running in fields, putting grasshoppers down shirts, throwing balls up on the roof, playing tag, and then being called in for dinner at dusk. There’s so much youthful exuberance packed in to this three minute sequence, and it stirs the soul.
Jack’s prayer (57:55-58:55). The Tree of Life is in many ways a string of prayers. Roger Ebert says that the whole film is a form of a prayer. One of my favorite prayer scenes is when Jack sits down at his bed and proceeds to pray a genuine prayer full of petitions (“Help me not to sass my dad… Help me to be thankful for everything we’ve got… Help me not to tell lies”) but also full of questions/whispers that are more rhetorical: “Where do you live? Are you watching me? I want to see what you see.” All of this is set against a lovely piano rendition of Francois Couperin’s “Les Barricades Mistérieuses.”
Repentance & Grace (1:49:00-1:56:10). Following the extensive “fall of man” sequence, in which we see Jack discovering his own depravity (culminating in the BB gun incident with his brother), the tone shifts as Jack seems to adopt a repentant heart (“What I want to do I can’t do; I do what I hate.”) and seeks forgiveness from his brother. Notice the score here: a slow, subtle piano quotation of the operatic Preisner theme from the birth of the universe sequence. Then there’s the amazing reconciliation scene between Jack and his brother (“You can hit me if you want… I’m sorry. You’re my brother.”), followed by a scene of Jack showing kindness to the burned boy he and his friends had previously shunned.
In the Garden (1:53:30-1:56:10). Part two of the grace/redemption catharsis begins when Jack joins his father in the garden. No words are spoken, but a new understanding is reached. Immediately following is Brad Pitt’s own moment of being humbled and brought to repentance. He loses he job and we hear his first (and only) voiceover of the film: “I’m nothing… Look at the beauty around us… I dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory. A foolish man.” The sequence climaxes with one of the film’s central voiceover expressions from Jack: “Father… Mother… Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.” The music in this sequence is quite deliberate: A subtle piano rendition of the Respinghi theme from the film’s birth scenes earlier, perhaps to help define these moments as experiences of “rebirth” for Jack and his father.
“The only way to be happy is to love” (1:58:30-2:01:30). In the final moments of the 1950s section of the film we watch the O’Briens as they pack up and move out of their Waco, TX home, to the music of Berlioz’ “Domine Jesu Christe” (from the Requiem). We see Jack somberly walk out of the street of his childhood one last time, then as the car drives away and the house grows smaller in the distance, mother leaves us with one last voiceover: “The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by… Do good to them… Wonder… Hope.” “Hope” is last word from mother in the film.
The end (2:03:00-the end). “Guide us to the end of time…” What can I say? Set to the “Agnus Dei” section of Berlioz’ Requiem, the final 15 minutes or so of the film are absolutely sublime… a montage of sight, sound, hope & belief.