138 minutes

We're used to expecting something else from reclusive director Terrence Malick, but for only his fifth feature in a 40-year career, he pulls out all the stops and offers a sensory, largely narrative-free tone poem that defies conventional definition. Closer to pure cinema than he's ever been, and rising to the rarefied, ambitious heights only the most unyielding auteurs of art cinema strive for, mr. Malick harnesses the full power of Hollywood filmmaking for his stubbornly singular vision of innocence lost in a mythical America, juxtaposing family life to the beginning and end of existence itself.
     The Tree of Life can be seen as a bookend or answer to mr. Malick's previous film, 2005's The New World, showing how the promise of the "new world" has been squandered through the fallibility of humanity, with Man wandering, uncomprehending, through a Creation he fails to understand or even acknowledge in his quest for meaning. The film is loosely structured around the memories of Jack O'Brien (played by Sean Penn as an adult and Hunter McCracken as a young boy), who is struggling to make sense, in the present day, of his childhood and his relationships with his sensitive young brother (Laramie Eppler), his kind mother (Jessica Chastain) and his strict father (Brad Pitt).
     There is much to admire in The Tree of Life, not least in the exquisite dovetailing of mr. Malick's extraordinary ambition with his masterful control of rhythm and tempo and his meticulous weaving of image, music, acting and sound into a harmonious whole that communicates through shared emotion rather than traditional storytelling. Even though The Tree of Life ranges from the dawn of the universe (richly imagined with the help of veteran visual effects artists Douglas Trumbull and Dan Glass) to modern day America in a fragmented, time-shifting structure, the clarity and precision of the vision is impressive. The mysticism glanced in previous films moves here centre stage and blossoms into full-fledged religion (not so much Catholic as a combination of spirituality, pantheism and hard science), though its picturing from the point of view of a God-fearing Texas family may lead to misjudgements from less religiously-inclined viewers.
     Regardless of one's opinion - and it is a film that demands admiration as much as empathy -, the sheer artistic result of The Tree of Life puts it straight in the company of visionary masters such as Stanley Kubrick (to whose 2001: A Space Odyssey it has already been compared), Jean-Luc Godard or Carl Theodor Dreyer. No other American film this year will even come close to its majesty.

Starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain; Fiona Shaw, Irene Bedard, Jessica Fuselier; and introducing Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan.
     Directed and written by Terrence Malick; produced by Sarah Green, Bill Pohlad, Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Grant Hill; music by Alexandre Desplat; director of photography (colour by DeLuxe), Emmanuel Lubezki; production designer, Jack Fisk; costume designer, Jacqueline West; film editors, Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber, Mark Yoshikawa; senior visual effects supervisor, Dan Glass.
     A River Road Entertainment presentation/production. (US distributor, Fox Searchlight Pictures/Twentieth Century-Fox. World sales, Summit Entertainment.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 9 (Lisbon), May 18th 2011.


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