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Tree of Strife

Terrence Malick’s new film—a cinematic meditation on God, grace, and the wretchedness of man—is an important and masterful work of art. It’s also the least Jewish film ever made.

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Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain in The Tree of Life. (Merie Wallace/Twentieth Century Fox Film )

The movie industry, accustomed to delivering its encomiums loudly and quickly each weekend, was scrambling for superlatives when introducing Terrence Malick’s new film, The Tree of Life. The usual heaps of hyperbole—a masterpiece, brilliant, groundbreaking—melted into air, unable to faithfully describe a film that has very little dialogue, nothing by way of a plot, and a lengthy middle section devoted to the creation of life on earth, a sequence that includes colorful gaseous explosions and malevolent dinosaurs. That may be because The Tree of Life is less of a film—a medium we’ve come to associate with certain formalistic conventions and from which we have immovable emotional expectations—and more of a cinematic essay on theology. As such, it is an unusually meditative work of art; it is also, quite possibly, the least Jewish movie ever made.

Just how fundamentally Christian is the soil in which the film is rooted is made clear by its very first lines. Heard in voice-over—Malick does not permit spoken words in The Tree of Life unless extra-diegetically superimposed on some serene image of suburban Texas in the 1950s—Mrs. O’Brien, a young mother of three small boys, delivers the following bit of heavenly guidance: “There are two ways through life. The way of nature, and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.”

Most viewers are likely to opt for grace, represented in the film by the ethereal actress Jessica Chastain. Nature, embodied by a hard and sharp Brad Pitt as Mr. O’Brien, is much less appealing, consisting of little but outbursts of anger and biting idiomatic sayings like “the world’s gone to the dogs.” She wears flowing white robes; he mopes into scenes in oversized earth-toned shirts. The dichotomy is perfect, but it is also deceiving: Like everything else in this metaphysical riddle, nothing is as simple as it seems.

Not even grace. For Catholics—like Malick and his fictional O’Briens—grace is a key theological concept that, put roughly and simply, is God’s very essence, the pure stuff through which Christ redeems his poor and sinning followers. It is also the locus of one of the fiercest, and most consequential, theological struggles of early Christianity, dating back to the 5th century, one that is deeply relevant to Malick’s film.

On the one hand of the scuffle was Pelagius, a British monk. At around 405 C.E., it is rumored, he heard a snippet from St. Augustine’s Confessions, published eight years earlier. It was a famous one: Da quod iubes, et iube quod vis—Give what you command, and command what you will. To Pelagius, such words were proof that their author hadn’t traveled very far from the Manichean faith of his youth; Augustine, he argued, was so attached to the idea of predestination that he obliterated all possibility of free will. Rather than stress the original sin, Pelagius argued, Christians should believe that man is free of Adam’s guilt and is wholly capable of doing good and saving himself, with a gentle nudge, perhaps, from the Almighty.

Hearing these arguments, Augustine was moved to write four long letters on the subject of grace. A typical quote, written in 412, captures his theological state of mind: “What merits of his own has the saved to boast of when, if he were dealt with according to his merits, he would be nothing if not damned? Have the just then no merits at all? Of course they do, for they are the just. But they had no merits by which they were made just.” In other words, man is doomed but for God’s grace, a free gift the Lord, through Christ, bestows on his undeserving and wretched children.

The debate continued for a few more years, before concluding with the resounding victory of one side. Augustine went on, in the famous words of his contemporary, St. Jerome, to “establish anew the ancient faith,” becoming one of Christianity’s most influential philosophers. Pelagius was banished from Rome and headed to Palestine, where he most probably died. For his efforts, Augustine acquired the moniker Doctor of Grace; it is very much in his light that believers have walked for centuries, resigned to insignificance, awaiting salvation from above.

The O’Briens are no different. It is hard to recall protagonists of major films more subdued than these Texans, more passive, ragdolls at the hands of an angry, unseen God. We learn, in the movie’s first scene, of the death of one of the O’Brien children at the age of 19. They are advised to overcome. They do. Later, in flashbacks, we see Mr. O’Brien working hard, and failing. Life goes on. Bowed, so does O’Brien. That he is portrayed by Brad Pitt—American Ajax, bronzed idol of Hollywood—makes this muted symphony of small frustrations that much harder to watch.

But the malaise some viewers might feel at the site of a defeated Pitt might have spiritual, as well as artistic, underpinnings. Film—more, perhaps, than any other medium—thrives on action. It revels in initiative. Movies demand movement, which is why their heroes take charge: Leave it to characters in novels to think; on screen, they do.

This—and not the largely insignificant fact that so many of its champions happened to be named Goldwyn or Mayer or Spielberg—is what makes cinema a profoundly Jewish art form. On celluloid film and in Jewish spirituality, there’s no room for grace: One is always the hero of one’s own story, and one must always redeem oneself.

To better understand this contentious claim, consider the following, from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s God in Search of Man: “The grand premise of religion is that man is able to surpass himself; that man who is part of this world may enter into a relationship with Him who is greater than the world; that man may lift up his mind and be attached to the absolute; that man who is conditioned by a multiplicity of factors is capable of living with demands that are unconditioned. How does one rise above the horizon of the mind? How does one free oneself from the perspectives of ego, group, earth, and age? How does one find a way in this world that would lead to an awareness of Him who is beyond this world?” One answer to these questions is mitzvot, or good deeds. “A Jew,” Heschel wrote elsewhere, “is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought.”

Any character in any movie is asked to do the exact same thing: Take the leap, surpass yourself, take charge. It’s a summary that fits anything from Chaplin to Charlie’s Angels, overcomers of obstacles all. But it does not, remarkably, fit the O’Briens. Their Texas is a land of predestination, a state of grace that demands of its residents patience and perseverance in the face of disasters big and small.

Job, of course, would fit right in such a place, and it is no coincidence that Malick opens his film with a quote from the Hebrew Bible’s strangest book. It is this: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?” The speaker, of course, is God, and if one is an O’Brien, one has no choice but to stare sheepishly at the ground, say nothing, and await the dying down of the divine ire. Mr. O’Brien himself is fond of such imperious rage: When he insists, for example, that his children call him “Father”—not, heaven forbid, dad or pop—he is every bit the short-tempered Creator, looking at his subjects and reminding them that they’ve no choice but to obey. The children—particularly the oldest, Jack—make their faint attempts at rebellion, but the family drama owes little to the familiar Freudian scheme of budding egos struggling to assert themselves. All that the O’Brien children learn is what their father learned in his day, what every devout Catholic has learned since St. Augustine preached of grace, which is to endure hardship, admit guilt, and await the divine gift of mercy.

How might Jewish audiences respond to such profoundly un-Jewish stirrings on-screen? By summoning the Jewish Job: As he emerges from millennia of rabbinic contemplation, our sufferer is neither Stoic nor Augustinian. As Maimonides had noted, Job’s greatness lies in questioning God at every turn, at hurling accusations at the Almighty—“ You have become cruel to me,” he quips at one point, sounding more like a wronged wife than a righteous saint in the throes of an existential test—and at learning to have a relationship with him whose very essence is unknowable to man. This is what Heschel was talking about—this rising above the horizon of the mind that is at the heart of the Jewish religious experience. It’s a rising only we ourselves can bring about.

Tell that to the O’Briens: As the film stumbles to a close, Jack—now a grown man, portrayed by a rumpled and soulful Sean Penn—walks along a rocky beach, meeting the youthful incarnations of his parents and brothers. He, were are led to believe, had been redeemed, his suffering and perseverance rewarded with a ticket to a surfside paradise. It’s a strange scene—the emotional tenor of which registers somewhere between a Hallmark card and Fauré’s Requiem—and it’s made stranger by the fact that Jack, upon whose moral upbringing we had just gazed for two hours, seems a poor candidate for redemption. As a child, he leans toward cruelty—strapping a frog to a firecracker, injuring his brother, caressing his selfish urges. As an adult, he seems absent, locked in a modern tower of glass and steel, an architect by profession but lacking anything resembling a plan. The only voiceover missing in those final scenes is that of St. Augustine, telling us that we can’t help but sin, and that God’s love will deliver us regardless.

Herein lies Malick’s true genius: As The Tree of Life ends and we file out of the theater, we are left—if our legs and our minds aren’t too numb from all those gasses and Cretaceous creatures milling about—contemplating not only creation but also creators. On the former front, Malick is a committed Catholic, and he bravely surrenders his characters to higher powers. On the latter front, he is far more radical. His quote from Job isn’t accidental. Read it before you’ve seen the movie, and it’s a Catholic exhortation on man’s eternal dependence on God’s good grace. Read if after, and it’s almost a Jewish teaching, shedding light not on man’s wretchedness but on God’s: Just as man cannot know the creator, the creator can never really share man’s earthly delights and is condemned to eternity in a lonely celestial prison cell.

It’s a terrible fate, one on which Milton shed some light in Paradise Lost. When Adam asks God for a mate, the Almighty is bitter. “What think’st thou then of me,” he asks the first man, “and this my state, seem I to thee sufficiently possessed of happiness, or not? Who am alone from all eternity, for none I know second to me or like, equal much less. How have I then with whom to hold converse save with the creatures which I made, and those to me inferior, infinite descents beneath what other creatures are to thee?” It’s the same divine mindset, presumably, that leads God to ask of Job “where wast thou,” the same mindset to which Heschel alludes, a profoundly Jewish state of mind. Embrace it, and the O’Briens may as well be Cohens, and Mr. O’Brien’s helplessness translated into the sort of sweet heartbreak one feels when one—God or father—looks at his creations and realizes that there will forever be an unbridgeable gap between him and his children. This, we Jews can understand.

Which—Hallelujah!—makes The Tree of Life rare not only as a film but also as a theological essay. Singularly committed to the doctrine of grace, it nevertheless allows enough room for alternative views to seep in. It gives us God—splendid, invisible, omnipresent—but admits that all that forgiveness and unrequited mercy can be a terribly alienating business. It’s a Christian movie through and through, but it warmly invites us Jews to partake of its questions. It’s not easy, but we should not resist the challenge.

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eli says:

This is a terrible film!

I would not recommend it to anyone.

If I had not been at the film with my family, would have walked out after twenty minutes – and the three other adult members of my family also wanted to leave but each stayed for the sake of the others (without asking and therefore not knowing how all disliked the film).

Thanks for this thoughtful essay.

I still haven’t seen “Tree of Life” and I’ve therefore avoided most reviews and responses, but this one drew me in. I like Malick’s dreamy, meditative films very much. The theological riffs are certainly plain, and Malick provides audiences with cinematic and temporal space for rumination; he’s nearly exceptional among mainstream filmmakers in this regard. (This fact isn’t surprising; most people respond to his films as does Eli above.)

One note on the “to do” of film (and Jewish theology) vis-a-vis Malick: Several of his earlier works, especially “Days of Heaven,” seem “to do” in orientation. I wonder if, as the director ages, he turns more to grace, while still leaving open the possibility of the Jobesian push back (self-accounting)? “The Thin Red LIne” certainly seemed to walk the middle path. Perhaps one day the publicity/interview shy Malick will discuss his thinking and career. That sure would be nice.

Ben Birnbaum says:

Wonderfully smart review. Liel Liebovitz’ reading of The Tree of Life—a film that has tied many otherwise articulate reviewers in embarrassingly clumsy knots of fervor or anguish—seems to me generous in both its Jewish and Christian comprehensions. It so happens that I was unexpectedly moved by the movie (I had hoped for several hours of relief from the heat), which seemed to me an honest and brave and visually stunning attempt to confront the mystery of human suffering in a God-created (redeemed as well, Malick must believe) world—though I have to say I’ve not since recommended it to any Jewish friends and could well have done without the concluding ocean-side redemption scene that Malick, as Liebovitz notes, brilliantly manages to fix equidistant between “Hallmark and Faure”—and particularly the moment when the ever-virginal Mrs. O’Brien, bookmarked between two angel-like figures, gazes heavenward and says (if memory serves) “I offer you my son.”

That’s what theologically serious Catholics I know call “cheap grace.” But it’s one of a very few instances (in a movie that runs past 2:15) in which Malick trades Job for Mother Angelica or Fulton Sheen. This is a fiction movie that intends profound Catholic theological business. I can’t think of an analogous Jewish movie—though books galore come to mind. Thanks again for this stimulating essay.

Verificationist says:

I’d like to thank eli, the first commenter, for the pithiest-ever illustration of a Jewish family at the movies. (Also at life.) As for Malick, I still have nightmares about sitting through that endlessly swaying grass in The Thin Red Line.

Robert Hagedorn says:

Tree of Strife, Tree of Life, Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? What are these strangely named trees? For a surprise, do a search: First Scandal.

DA Allan says:

Interesting piece, here. I found the film fascinating and ambitious; not always successful, but a valiant attempt, in my estimation. I wonder what evidence Liebovitz has that Malick is a committed Catholic? I have heard several discussions of his Episcopalian background (where he went to boarding school) and his Assyrian Christian father’s background, but no reference of his Catholicism, biographically. I have seen several references that he and his present wife attend an Episcopal church outside of Austin, TX and that the actor playing the minister/priest part in Tree of Life is actually an Episcopal rector at a Texas church.
Malick’s religious view is interesting and relevant, but I am not so sure I buy an interepretation that privileges Malick’s religious viewpoint possesing such clarity. I also feel there are much broader ways to interpret the film as opposed to a Judeo-Christian frame. Nonetheless, lots to engage with and I definitely enjoyed this reaction to the film.

Starting to really enjoy Tablet. Gets inspired writers and readers with comments that range from funny to smart to questioningly thoughtful.

JCarpenter says:

I was absolutely engrossed by the film; thanks for this review—for a complementary p.o.v. review from a christian reviewer, check “Books & Culture” magazine/website.

jrosen says:

As a musician (and a secular Jew) I’d like to comment on the use of music in this very strange film. First, the music in the beach scene, was nit Faure, but the Berlioz Requiem, which has much more of an apocalyptic atmosphere (check out the Lachrymosa, e.g.) than the Faure. The music (used twice) during the grieving for the drowned boy was the opening of the Mahler First Symphony, said by the composer to express he awakening of Nature…a strange choice indeed! There were references by the Pitt character (who was made to appear rather unattractive BTW) to being a failed musician…he plays Bach on the organ, and there is also a bit of one of the fugues from Well-Tempered Clavier Bk I, in a context where I had no idea whatsoever what it was doing there. What is the back-story here? I’ve seen references online to some sort of previous O’Brien military career but I recall nothing of the sort in the film. By the timing (clearly 1950’s because of the cars and dress, and also the total absence of blacks in group scenes) O’Brien would have been of an age to have military experience (if not WWII then Korea) but there is nothing of this.

More general comments: Whereas this reviewer stressed the “failure” of Mr. O’Brien, in the opening scene, the couple are living in an obviously expensive and well-appointed house…did one of his patents finally cash in? It was not clear at all which son had died or why…I suppose I should see the film again but I’m not sure I could bear once more the seemingly endless stretches without any development of character or action.

In short, it was a unique experience, but necessarily a good one. As one who has mulled over the questions posed by Job (How did that book ever get into the canon, anyway?) for decades, I felt that the “theology” such as it was, was on the level of a late-night dorm session among 19-year-old undergrads.

Anyway, the cinemetography was gorgeous.

Al Moldovan says:

Pure Christian propaganda. I nearly walked out.Pretentious preaching.

Albert Magnus says:

Like DA Allen, I heard that he was Episcopalian. Also, it would be very unusual to be a White Catholic in Waco in 1950s.

Seems like you clearly don’t understand the Catholic idea of grace (and seem to be confusing it with the Protestant idea of grace)…here is someone’s attempt to clarify them, in a discussion of Flannery O’Connor’s novels:

“O’Connor made a pretty clear statement on this subject in her essay “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South” when she wrote, “[The Catholic novel] cannot see man as determined; it cannot see him as totally depraved. It will see him as incomplete in himself, as prone to evil, but as redeemable when his own efforts are assisted by grace.”
She is setting this against the reformed (protestant) view that man is, in a sense, determined and totally depraved. This is not an idea that believes man makes no choices of the will, or is incapable of morally decent choices, but that his will is in bondage to sin until God intervenes through grace to regenerate his heart. Therefore the idea that to a protestant grace is “unmerited favor without righteousness” is accurate only to a point–no righteosness prior to grace, true, but grace is the instrument of producing righteousness within the Christian heart. ”

So, human agency or “the todo” aspect of righteousness that you assert is singular to Judaism was clearly included in Catholicism as well.

Christopher says:

What a fascinating discussion to find on the Tablet, but I have to agree with the commenters who make a distinction between the Protestant and Catholic conceptions of grace, and its place in the economy of salvation. To paraphrase Jean Guitton, theologian to Paul VI: in Protestant thought the individual soul is always depraved and worthy of eternal damnation, and its salvation depends on God’s gratuitous gift of grace alone. Protestant grace is a gift received vertically; it descends upon the soul in a single instant in a response to a confession of faith, reclothing it, justifying the soul by a second birth. This descent is always ready for a renewed awakening in the event of a relapse into sin. By this, we can understand the otherwise inscrutable dramas that occur when televangelists are caught up in scandal. A preacher may have been found with a hooker, but all he must do is repent publicly and fervently; stating that he is a sinner who is wholly dependent on God’s forgiveness and he will emerge stronger in the eyes of his followers than ever. He has become an archetype of fallen human nature and his redemption stands for the redemption of his entire flock.

By contrast, in Catholic thought grace is received in a horizontal fashion throughout a length of time: it is sanctifying. The initial grace of baptism is conferred instantly, of course, but the preparation of the soul for final justification calls for a progressive refinement of the grace received. It is fostered and nurtured by patient application to the sacraments. Each confession, each communion, burnishes the soul and brings it into further harmony with God’s plan for it. Catholics may work out their salvation in fear and trembling, but work it out they are expected to do. This is why there are saints in the Catholic tradition but not the Protestant one. Justification and sanctification go hand in hand.

I haven’t yet seen Tree of Life, but based on Liel Leibovitz’ excellent essay, I now plan too.

anthony says:

I haven’t seen the movie, but the comments about Catholics and grace amused me. Protestants generally accuse us of being a ‘religion of works’, not of grace.

Beautifully insightful. Raised Catholic I just allowed the Grace of this movie to wash over me not really pondering its intentions but I think you got really close. I wish you put a giant *spoiler alert* before the review as I can’t recommend it to anyone who hasn’t seen the movie yet. I wish I didn’t hear that there would be “dinosaurs in Terrance Malick’s new movie” a couple of years ago. The fact that some people hated this merely proves to me he made a ballsy film. If everyone liked it it would be tripe. Thanks again.

Malick is an Episcopalian, not a Catholic, but I don’t know that it matters. Both St. Paul (in the film: I can’t do what I want and I do what I hate) and the Augustinian doctrine of grace are common to both Catholicism and Anglicanism. The family in the film is depicted as being Catholic.

It is a profoundly beautiful film (personally I think is the single most beautiful film that I have seen in my life). I did not know that Judaism does not have a doctrine of grace. I don’t dispute it but it surprises me since it seems to me to be intellectually required: How can a mere creature know God but by His grace? A merit of Malick’s astonishing film is that, for those unfamiliar with grace, it depicts it as experienced in the interior life of Christians.

(I have to say that the remark that “cinema is a profoundly Jewish art form” is as irritating as it is untrue. It is of course true that since the very early years of the film industry most of the producers and many film executives have been Jewish, but the producers and film executives are not artists. Hitchcock, Coppola, Griffith, Welles, Godard, Ford, Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, Renoir, Hawks, etc., were not Jewish, to my knowledge. If baseball had mostly Jewish owners and general managers, it would not make baseball a profoundly Jewish sport.)

Andrew Lyttle says:

Well, the grace/nature distinction in this review is far starker and far more simplistic than it is either in Christian theology or in Malick’s film. Decent review, but the reviewer needs to deepen his understanding of Christian tradition if he intends to hold forth on its understanding of grace.

The film is magnificent, incidentally.

Jonathan Schwartz says:

Wonderfully insightful review/essay of a truly magnificent film. Ben Birnbaum adds a needed corrective when he states that the film is an “honest and brave and visually stunning attempt to confront the mystery of human suffering in a God-created (redeemed as well, Malick must believe) world…”

this, of course, is a deeply, holistic Jewish question found in everything from U’neh Tanetokef on the High Holidays to the Sholom Alecheim’s Tevye. Focusing exclusively on the nature of grace (which, of course, exists in Judaism in Biblical Hebrew as Chen (CHet,Nun), often translated as “favor” as G-d’s acts of loving-kindness to folks who may or may not merit it), misses the very Jewish themes of “fear of Heaven” and “love of Heaven” that inform the family’s dynamic, and indeed, action (acts of violence, acts of forgiveness)in the film.

Most notably, as others have noted, an equally dominant theme is the transcendent power of love within a family. While not explicitly a Jewish theme, it is not an “un-Jewish” one and certainly not one on which Christianity holds a monopoly. We Jews don’t talk much about love in theological terms for historical reasons, precisely because it is essentialist in all Christian theology. Notwithstanding, Torah is replete with G-d’s love for the Jewish People and we, in turn, are commanded to love G-d in our bedrock prayer, the Shema.

Great film and go see it for yourself. Don’t be put off by Malick’s view of Olam Ha’Bah as a trippy Gap commercial on the beach. Who knows?
—though I have to say I’ve not since recommended it to any Jewish friends and could well have done without the concluding ocean-side redemption scene that Malick, as Liebovitz notes, brilliantly manages to fix equidistant between “Hallmark and Faure”—

Jonathan Schwartz says:

Please disregard the last part after “Who Knows.” I accidentally pasted in the concluding clause in Ben Birnbaum’s sentence. A mistake.

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Tree of Strife

Terrence Malick’s new film—a cinematic meditation on God, grace, and the wretchedness of man—is an important and masterful work of art. It’s also the least Jewish film ever made.

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