Reviews - The Tree Of Life
The Tree Of Life
Reviewed By John Stakes
Tree of Life and Incendies
Last Sunday’s celebrations must rank amongst the best value film fest fare anywhere in the country at club or general public level. For less than the price of one copy of Cumbria Life, (and only a tad more for non-members) members could experience not only four and a half hours of world cinema (chosen by former Chair Rod Evans), sandwiched by a delightful buffet hosted by the Masonic Hall, but we were all to experience arguably the best double bill ever featured at the club.
Measured in terms of festival triumphs the 4pm screening of Terrence Malick’s 2011 Palme D’Or winner “Tree of Life” was the more celebrated of the double-bill, but Denis Villeneuve’s “Incendies” was to prove the more popular. Both films concerned the impact of parents on their offspring, but Malick took his essentially small-town tale of growing up in Waco Texas and life-skill choosing between nature and nurture as a prism for an expressionist view on the nature of life and existence itself. The result has been to divide opinion as to the film’s merits to so great an extent as to invite comparison with Kubrick’s iconic and groundbreaking “2001” at one end and to dismiss it as pretentious and overblown at the other.
For this reviewer Mallick’s film was only a smidgeon short of a masterpiece. Had it stayed rooted in Waco it would have earned that honour. The depiction of the many difficulties faced by this Texan family and the pains of growing up were movingly caught by Mallick’s fluid camera so expertly that dialogue became almost unnecessary. The acting of all concerned, including all three boys, was of the highest order. Refreshingly, sentimentality was eschewed allowing true emotion to emerge and the raw edges to be uncomfortably exposed.
Perhaps sensing that even the most sophisticated of modern CGI would not come close to conveying the core qualities necessary to depict the origin of existence and the birth of man, Malick and his team headed by his friend Douglas Trumbull experimented (as did Kubrick) with a variety of materials including chemicals, paint, dyes, smoke, flares, lighting and high speed photography for maximum effect for the creation of the universe sequence which exploded on to the screen after the first reel.
There is no doubting the impressive technical wizardry, but the fundamental question is (and Mallick asked a lot of questions) were we any more illuminated by the experience? Perhaps the nature of existence is, in reality, incapable of no more than superficial exploration, and the concept so immense as to be beyond cinematic embracement. “Ridiculously beautiful but ridiculous” railed one critic. An ambitious, epic, an aesthetic, exploration of the meaning of life, but possibly overburdened by its own ambition when it took to the skies and its voice-over passages irritated at times. Down on the ground it was revelatory. And its overt Christian message never preached nor did it detract from the film’s powerful examination of the dynamics of this family’s life.
On the other hand “Incendies”, another exploration into the past and its impact on the present, remained small scale throughout. It also retained its emotional core and the unfolding drama was paced to perfection. The film’s construction is an opened-out version of a stage play by Lebanese Canadian Wajdi Mowawad and heavily plotted.
And what intrigue is etched out in the opening sequences! A middle-eastern immigrant mother (Nawal), now living in Canada, instructs her lawyer at her death to hand her twin children now young adults (Jeanne and Simon) a letter each. One is for their brother; the other for their father. However, both believe their father to have died years before in the civil war and neither thinks he or she has a brother! Nawal’s homeland is never identified but most likely Lebanon (and filming took place in Amman)
Thus begins a journey, Jeanne feeling more obliged than Simon to undertake it, which will see both children returning to their mother’s past (which was mired in the Lebanese war of 1982) to uncover the truth. When they arrive there is a wall of silence awaiting them and the discoveries they make are shocking and painful as they learn more about the lives of their parents before they themselves were born.
The stage play narrative was understandably pared down for the screenplay but remained intelligent and articulate throughout. The acting was flawless. The shocking denouement has been dismissed by some critics as a plot twist too far, but even if it stretched credulity, such were the complexities of that particular war that such an outcome was not surprising. The only question for this reviewer was why mother subjected her children to learning the truth. Her secret was surely safe? What good did it serve to reveal it? An interesting debate could ensue!
But this was riveting world cinema of the highest order. The locations were authentic, the camera work exemplary, and the musical score chimed perfectly. The rising tension was palpable and the characters both served and drove the twisting plot so the manipulation never rang false. Once again how “In A Better World” triumphed over this and other competition at this year’s Oscars remains a mystery. This Keswick audience voted “Incendies” the 7th most popular film in the history of the club! What a great evening’s entertainment. Thanks go to Rod Evans and the whole of the committee for such a memorable event.
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