Friday, July 22, 2011

David Bentley Hart on 'The Tree of Life'

The anxious anticipation is over. David Bentley Hart has weighed in on The Tree of Life in a piece titled Seven Characters In Search of a Nihil Obstat over at First Things.

The muses are gaily capricious in the favors they bestow upon us, but humorlessly imperious in the demands they make of us. One never knows when inspiration may strike; one knows only that, when it comes, it must not be resisted. In my case, the occasion was an idle afternoon this past week, as I was irascibly considering the reaction of a few conservative Catholic critics to Terrence Malick’s strange, beautiful, perhaps slightly mad, and deeply Christian film The Tree of Life. One review even described the sensibility of the film as “New Age,” a judgment bizarrely inapposite to Malick’s often dark, often radiant, emotionally austere, and deeply contemplative art.
The film, in fact, is brilliant, mesmerizingly lovely, and almost alarmingly biblical. Even if one is not enchanted (as I most definitely am) by Malick’s signature cinematic mannerisms, or by the fleeting hints of his more recondite intellectual preoccupations (Heidegger? Gnosticism? Buddhism? Russian Sophiology, perhaps?), surely one ought to recognize the ingenious subtlety of the scriptural allegories around which the film is built, and of the film’s meditations on the mystery of God’s silence and eloquence, and on innocence and transgression, and on the divine glory that shines out from all things.
Or so I was thinking as I drowsed there, warming my pelt in a pool of sunlight. Then, however, it occurred to me that perhaps, after all, these critics did have a kind of point. Oh, yes, The Tree of Life is profoundly, if mysteriously, scriptural—with its images of Eden, Cain and Abel, God speaking out of the whirlwind, divine Wisdom dancing at the heart of creation, Christ the man of sorrows, and so on—but is that sufficient to make it a truly Catholic film, at least of the sort these earnest critics so obviously crave? And I realized that probably it is not: It contains no pericopes from the catechism, no triumphant affirmations of papal primacy, no satisfying deathbed conversions, no heartwarming tableaux of the happy Catholic family warm in the embrace of Mother Church, no nuns, no Bing Crosby, no Italians . . .

It's not an exhaustively thorough review of the film, but it is great to hear his thoughts. He spends the bulk of the piece satirically renouncing the suggestion by some Catholics that the film is "New Age" or "not Christian enough". As I had written before, I also found such suggestions absurd, but Hart finds a particularly brilliant method of ridiculing these suggestions by offering a rough draft script for the perfect Catholic film.

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