If you’re looking for a slick Hollywood pot boiler, then skip this one. This is a film without a taut story. So, if you want a good story, you’re hunting in the wrong place. The Tree of Life. Does the plot move around a magical tree that materializes over night on the front lawn? Nope!
Even the word ‘movie’ is deceptive here. Yes, there are moving images, but more like a montage or a series of montages tracked onto some stunning music with occasional whispered monologues. It is these precious strands of thought, whispered to the great consciousness, that bring cohesion to the images. And the audience listening to those familiar silent prayers become that Universal Consciousness: listening, witnessing as Life unfolds its dramas.
Life. The very word implies death. Life carries with it the shadow of death. Each character must deal with the reality of death: the death of one’s friends, family members, one’s own death, the death of childhood; each phase of life implies death on some level for the new to flourish…the endless cycle of birth and death, the wrath of Nature and the unexpected renewal and blossoming of life.
The film begins with death…and of living in the shadow and memory of one who has died. “Where were you, to let a boy die? Let anything happen?” is the mother’s anguished cry to God. “Will you die too?” asks the distraught son of his mother. Life rolls on two wheels, made clear as the film opens, “the Way of Grace and the Way of Nature”. The mother, played by Jessica Chastain, ever kind, loving and forgiving, symbolises the Way of Grace. She holds the family together. She is perfectly cast – a delicate beauty much like a wisp of passing life.
The camera closes up on Brad Pitt, the father, as the mother’s voice over reveals, “Nature only wants to please itself, get others to please it too…likes to Lord it over them.” A good introduction to what is to follow…the typical, earning male stereotype, Lord of the Manor, who takes it upon himself to tirelessly ‘educate’ his young sons. Of course he is well meaning, but it comes at a painful price (for his family!).
Are you patient? Has life delivered its lessons of Patience to you? Can you make sense of your life? Have you even tried? Perhaps this is what director Terrence Malick is asking us, the audience. He has done his best to capture the incomprehensible unfolding of life with individual beliefs, confusions, doubts and questions posed by the actors given roles to play in this grand scheme called ‘Life’. Are we not actors struggling to make sense of our lives and although we are so minuscule compared to the vastness of the Universe are not our concerns real and felt and lived?
If these are your concerns: Who am I? Where am I going? What am I doing here? What is all this about? Then this is the movie for you! It unfolds slowly, like huge waves forming and dissolving in slow motion, the movements of Nature merging with the movements of Man.
There are many pauses, slow dissolves, the screen goes black momentarily, reminders of life and death, of the mind going blank, stories beginning, ending and merging one into the other. An effortless meeting of generations living and gone on the sands of Time. The film captures dramatically the meeting of the river with the ocean, and the meeting of the child with the grown up self, the grown up with its childhood parent, as past, present and future freely mingle as one. The movie ends with a grand embracing of the self, forgiveness, love and joy, a quiet celebration on the shores of a grand ocean of life.
It did strike me that had the family learned the Sudarshan Kriya and practised it along with meditation on a daily basis, there would not be an eternal lifetime of mourning. There would be no space or reason to remain unhappy “when all the world is shining around and love is smiling through all things.” Gurudev (Sri Sri Ravi Shankar) would certainly have ensured they imbibe the wisdom that “Life goes on, people pass along. Nothing remains the same.” That is the path of viveka, of discrimination we all live by at The Art of Living.
Given the spectacular and recurring images of water in its varied forms (whether in the form of a gardener’s hose enticingly spraying water on the mother’s feet, an inviting swimming pool, a river flowing wide, the lashing waves of an ocean) I wonder whether Ocean of Life would have been a more apt title. This is definitely a must see film for those of you who enjoy experimental movies, classical music, nature that takes away your breath…and mostly for those of you who, long after the show’s over, like to ponder over that mystery we call life, your life!
Jai Gurudev !!