June 3, 2011


From Catholic News Service:"'The Tree of Life' is lovely, but misses metaphysical truth http://t.co/AGK4zim "

This review is a truly tragic misrepresentation of this most amazing film. What's even sadder is that this is an "official" review on the U. S. Bishops website! www.usccb.org/movies

This review reflects a kind of "witch hunt" mentality of some Catholics when they view movies (scrounging for all the ways a film might possibly NOT synch with the Catholic Faith, and instead of stretching towards benefit of the doubt and how it COULD possibly synch with the Catholic Faith, they choose to set up an opposition). This review feels like a facile, surface take on one of the most potentially faith-inducing, faith-retrieving movies I have ever seen in my life.

The author of this review had the same misgivings I did at first about a possible antagonism between "nature and grace," but as you can see in my review http://hellburns.blogspot.com/2011/05/movies-tree-of-life.html that's not how the movie plays out.

To facilely call this movie "New Age," as the author of this review does, is just wrong. "New Age" seems to be the favorite Post-it Note that is swiftly slapped on anything that emphasizes God's Creation! THAT'S creating a true dichotomy between nature and grace!!! And THAT is very, very dangerous business. One name for it is "Cartesianism" and we have been dealing with its horrible fragmenting repercussions for the past 500 years. Blessed John Paul II's antidote? "Theology of the Body" which he calls "the long-awaited answer to rationalism [a form of Cartesianism]." BJP2G roots his theology firmly in God's visible, tangible, concrete Creation as the starting point for all philosophy and theology. And this is nothing new. The Church has always said that "Nature is God's first book of Revelation." Terrence Malick--writer/director of "Tree of Life"--is definitely not a New-Ager: for all the many nature scenes it sports, the movie is most definitely about the human--the interior, moral life of the human being and the dominance of family life in human relationships. (If you watch his other films, you'll see how much he uses nature in them.)

There seems to be an inordinate fear among many religious people, especially Christians, that if nature is lovingly gazed upon or its beauty appreciated and accented, it will become the object of worship. So "just in case," we must condemn any Creation-affirming vehicles. I think it's part of a larger "let's always err on the side of negativity, seeing things in the worst possible light, the worst case scenario of the possible intentions of the artist." I have heard on Catholic radio the condemnation of being "green" and almost repudiating any kind of attention paid or attempts at conserving the environment, even saying that Pope Benedict was going too far in installing solar panels at the Vatican and speaking up about global warming. St. Ignatius--in his "Spiritual Exercises"--prescribes a very different attitude. Basically he states that charity (without being naive or pollyanna or gullible) requires us to construe intentions in the best possible light, to find the points of assent to truth in what our neighbor has to say.

To miss the aesthetical ethics of a masterpiece such as "Tree of Life" might only serve to confirm the belief of many artists and art-lovers that Catholics are rigid, blind, self-righteous, small-souled, sin-obsessed philistines.

To call "Tree of Life" "spiritual but not religious" is just inaccurate!!! The film starts with a A QUOTE FROM THE BIBLE--Job, to be specific. The family goes to a Catholic church--more than once!!! We see Brad Pitt make the Sign of the Cross and genuflect toward the Tabernacle!!! There's a stained glass window of Jesus while the voice over talks about His suffering!!! There's an awesome homily preached by a Catholic priest!!! The family prays grace at meals!!! The mother teaches the little boy that God lives in the sky!!! The soundtrack doesn't just "sound like" sacred music--there's an "Agnus Dei" in there! The little boy talks to GOD!!! (Oh, and it's very pro-life.) If "Tree of Life," can't "please the Church," I fear there is no "pleasing the Church!"

The reviewer makes mention of Malick's "agnosticism." I don't know what faith/non-faith Malick has, but I will tell you that Malick's "agnosticism" makes a lot of believer's faith PALE BY COMPARISON. True, an artist's own beliefs always influence their work, but Malick could have fooled me that he was an agnostic, and if anything, he's siding with FAITH here.

"Tree of Life" is a movie event that comes along once in blue moon. It must be seen in the theater to be fully appreciated and it would be a shame if this negative review keeps Catholic movie-goers away. And I would call it a "blessed" event because of how it is going to touch people at their core and give them permission to celebrate the faith they have, polish it off and take it out of the closet and bring it into the magnificent light of God's glory, or at least give them every reason to "seek Him," and God willing, "find Him."

"You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart." --Jeremiah 29:13 NIV

"And they will praise his holy name to proclaim the grandeur of his works." --Sirach 17:10 RSV

Bookmark and Share


  1. Re Malick's faith, check out what actor Jim Caviezel (who played Jesus in "The Passion of the Christ")had to say when he came to Malick's house one day and encountered Malick's wife... http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-religion/1088690/posts

    Haven't seen "The Tree of Life" yet but very much looking forward to it. Thanks for that impassioned defense--how sad to see these comments from the U.S. Bishops website!

  2. AWESOME!!!! Thanks for this link!

  3. Praise God for Sr. Helena! Sr Helena and I attended the same press screening a few weeks back in the "backward fly over city - Chicago" and I am with you Sister! Sr. Helena is one of the well grounded and faithful Catholic voices Hollywood and the general public need to hear. My commentary to come out soon for New Ethos once my new website is launched. I see Fr. Barron gave a very positive review too - Hmmm, he is from Chicago too. Hollywood (particularly Mr. Malick), what you do is important and we support you in your quest to reveal the "echoes" of truth, beauty, and goodness in the depths of God's creative majesty!

  4. Yeah, thanks, Terrence (born in Ontario, IL)! Be sure to check out Fr. Don's website which is.......??? And I just know he's going to post his "beauty in film" criteria....

    See--we in the MIDwest have a truly balanced approach, the golden mean, "virtue lies in the middle.".....

  5. Wow, Sr. Helena, I haven't seen the movie yet but the passion and well-writtenness (haha, ok, not a word) of this review makes me want to spend my little nun money and see it... more than once. So, thanks!!!

  6. Anonymous11:28 PM

    Bonjour, Sr. Helena.
    You seem so much on the defensive... I read the Bishops site review and I read yours and I find them both interesting - and I thank you both for them - but I just wished you had been able to write yours with a bit of restraint focusing more on what you love about it rather than using it as a roundabout way of criticizing the Bishops'review and all these "other negative Catholics"....:)
    Nevertheless, I do intend to see this movie next week and I'll let you know how I found it. In the French press, they had all those people during the Cannes festival going on and on about this being ZE Best Movie ever made... it intrigued me.

  7. Bonjour! Ca va? Yes, I am on the defensive! I am still so irked by what people think is the "official U.S. Bishops' review!" Here is my actual review of TOL with everything I love about it: http://hellburns.blogspot.com/2011/05/movies-tree-of-life.html
    I'm so glad the French press embraced TOL--so did the American secular press! Of course, Malick lived(s?) in Paris, mais oui? And there is something rather European about this film AND the French are the keepers of beauty, are they not? God bless.

  8. James Watrous5:46 PM

    I just saw THE TREE OF LIFE LAST NIGHT and I thought it was excellent. I was disappointed with the review of the film by the critic from the USCCB.
    As for Terrence Malick being an agnostic. I don't think that's true. I met the actor Martin Sheen four years ago. He is good friends with Malick. I enquired about Malick's religion and according to Sheen Malick is an Episcopalian.
    As for a new age spirituality I thought that was nonsense too.
    I've seen all Malick's films (five in all) and his films are an acquired to taste.

  9. Dear James, Thanks for the heads up about Malick being Episcopalian. I'm really going to write to the U.S. Bishops about the review. At least a work of this magnitude needs to be answered "in kind." Not with a ho-hum, suspicious attitude. Tragic. We need to find Bishops who are true friends of the arts who won't let this happen in the future....

  10. Martha Craig3:48 AM

    I just read the review on the U.S. Bishops web site. What the reviewer didn't see in TOL was a pedestrian parroting of Catholic dogma and assertion of its primacy. He saw sacred, Christian art, admittedly flawed, and didn't recognize it as explicitly Christian. Too bad, but not surprising. The quote from Job that opens TOL is significant and is echoed throughout the film; the ways of God are ineffable to humankind, but we know that sin estranges us from God and one another, and love and forgiveness bring us closer to God. Jesus Christ may not have made an explicit appearance, but He permeated every frame of the film, and Christian observance, in the form of Episcopal worship and the Easter hymn, "Welcome Happy Morning," were also in evidence. How you could get "spiritual, but not Christian" from that says more about the reviewer than it does about TOL.

  11. Dear Martha,
    Each reviewer is entitled to their opinion, but (in addition to the reasons above) this review was just to important, and this movie too important. Some secular reviewers are now calling it "the future of film," etc.!! Here's hoping! Thanks for your thoughts!

  12. Martha Craig10:46 PM

    Thank you, sister. I agree completely, but felt compelled to challenge those who insist on viewing a work art with a doctrinal check list. God and His works are a great deal bigger than our imperfect theology, and I feel this ambitious movie does a very good job of addressing just how majestic and beyond our reckoning the God "who hung the stars in space" actually is.

  13. Martha--yes, yes, exactly! There is an aesthetical ethical lens through which art must be viewed! This is a basic philosophical principle: We treat something according to what it is, according to its nature! And to be looking for a page from the Catechism of the Catholic Church in a film violates this principle. It's against natural law! ha ha ha

  14. Rob Cosgrove7:01 AM

    Thanks Sr Helena for your comments.We have many GREAT Pauline sisters in Australia who are doing wonderful work. I saw the film with two of my adult sons. I found it both a very spiritual and religious experience - scenes of the son's baptism, confirmation and dad playing organ at church. The beautiful statement by the mother to a woman attempting to comfort her grief ('he is in God's hands now') ... 'He was always in God's hands.' These words not said as a rebuke but plainly as an eternal truth. These ideas echo a new book by Australian author Fr Richard Leonard sj, 'Where the Hell is God?' (Paulist Press).

  15. Thanks, Rob--glad to hear about our nunnies in the land down under! TOL is my FAVORITE film of all times, now. My prof for my Media Literacy Education Masters is an Aussie. :] oy oy oy