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May 26, 2011

Award-Winning Film Explores Meaning of Life

by Penelope Poulou

'The Tree of Life' starring Brad Pitt won the top prize at the recent Cannes Film Festival

Filmmaker Terrence Malick is not prolific. His five feature films span four decades. But each is masterful and has met with acclaim. His latest, The Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain, recently received the Palme D'Or (top prize) at the Cannes Film Festival. Malick is known for his powerful visuals, spare dialogue and spiritual themes.

The Tree of Life is about the quest to find balance between one's spiritual self and human nature.

Filmmaker Terrence Malick, a former professor of philosophy, presents this innate struggle through characters in a suburban American household of the 1950s. The father is proud and oppressive. He struggles inwardly because he has not succeeded in the world. Because of his feelings of inadequacy, he tries to mold his sons to his ideal.

Jack is still a boy, but he carries the world on his shoulders. He admires his father but also resents him.

For Malick, the struggle between father and son reflects both the cruelty and beauty of nature. In a twenty minute sequence, the director offers shots of the universe at work, an awesome struggle among natural forces.

But there is also grace, kindness and altruism. The mother in the story, played by Jessica Chastain, embodies them.

The boy grows up to be a successful, but also conflicted man played by Sean Penn. He struggles as he deals with the loss of his younger brother and the loss of innocence.

Brad Pitt's performance is a tour de force. At the Cannes Film Festival, he spoke of the film's spiritual message.  

"And then there is the bigger questions of the impermanence of life that I think we all go through," said Pitt.  "I grew up being told that God's going to take care of everything and it doesn't always work out that way, and when it doesn't work out that way then we're told it's God's will. Many people find religion to be something very inspiring and leads them to opportunities. I myself find it very stifling."

Religion aside, the film is a treatise on the meaning of life. Its extraordinary visuals, minimal dialogue and meditative music have a subliminal impact on the viewer and allow the audience to search and come to its own conclusion.

Some critics have spoken against the film's drawn-out sequences on the evolution of the universe. But Tree of Life won the Palme D'Or at Cannes for good reason.  It offers daring cinematography and an excellent cast.  And although it carries Terrence Malick's signature, it's ulike anything we've seen before.