The movie industry, accustomed to delivering its encomiums loudly and quickly each weekend, was scrambling for superlatives when introducing Terrence Malick’s new film, The Tree of Life. The usual heaps of hyperbole—a masterpiece, brilliant, groundbreaking—melted into air, unable to faithfully describe a film that has very little dialogue, nothing by way of a plot, and a lengthy middle section devoted to the creation of life on earth, a sequence that includes colorful gaseous explosions and malevolent dinosaurs. That may be because The Tree of Life is less of a film—a medium we’ve come to associate with certain formalistic conventions and from which we have immovable emotional expectations—and more of a cinematic essay on theology. As such, it is an unusually meditative work of art; it is also, quite possibly, the least Jewish movie ever made.
Just how fundamentally Christian is the soil in which the film is rooted is made clear by its very first lines. Heard in voice-over—Malick does not permit spoken words in The Tree of Life unless extra-diegetically superimposed on some serene image of suburban Texas in the 1950s—Mrs. O’Brien, a young mother of three small boys, delivers the following bit of heavenly guidance: “There are two ways through life. The way of nature, and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.”
Most viewers are likely to opt for grace, represented in the film by the ethereal actress Jessica Chastain. Nature, embodied by a hard and sharp Brad Pitt as Mr. O’Brien, is much less appealing, consisting of little but outbursts of anger and biting idiomatic sayings like “the world’s gone to the dogs.” She wears flowing white robes; he mopes into scenes in oversized earth-toned shirts. The dichotomy is perfect, but it is also deceiving: Like everything else in this metaphysical riddle, nothing is as simple as it seems.
Not even grace. For Catholics—like Malick and his fictional O’Briens—grace is a key theological concept that, put roughly and simply, is God’s very essence, the pure stuff through which Christ redeems his poor and sinning followers. It is also the locus of one of the fiercest, and most consequential, theological struggles of early Christianity, dating back to the 5th century, one that is deeply relevant to Malick’s film.
On the one hand of the scuffle was Pelagius, a British monk. At around 405 C.E., it is rumored, he heard a snippet from St. Augustine’s Confessions, published eight years earlier. It was a famous one: Da quod iubes, et iube quod vis—Give what you command, and command what you will. To Pelagius, such words were proof that their author hadn’t traveled very far from the Manichean faith of his youth; Augustine, he argued, was so attached to the idea of predestination that he obliterated all possibility of free will. Rather than stress the original sin, Pelagius argued, Christians should believe that man is free of Adam’s guilt and is wholly capable of doing good and saving himself, with a gentle nudge, perhaps, from the Almighty.
Hearing these arguments, Augustine was moved to write four long letters on the subject of grace. A typical quote, written in 412, captures his theological state of mind: “What merits of his own has the saved to boast of when, if he were dealt with according to his merits, he would be nothing if not damned? Have the just then no merits at all? Of course they do, for they are the just. But they had no merits by which they were made just.” In other words, man is doomed but for God’s grace, a free gift the Lord, through Christ, bestows on his undeserving and wretched children.
The debate continued for a few more years, before concluding with the resounding victory of one side. Augustine went on, in the famous words of his contemporary, St. Jerome, to “establish anew the ancient faith,” becoming one of Christianity’s most influential philosophers. Pelagius was banished from Rome and headed to Palestine, where he most probably died. For his efforts, Augustine acquired the moniker Doctor of Grace; it is very much in his light that believers have walked for centuries, resigned to insignificance, awaiting salvation from above.
The O’Briens are no different. It is hard to recall protagonists of major films more subdued than these Texans, more passive, ragdolls at the hands of an angry, unseen God. We learn, in the movie’s first scene, of the death of one of the O’Brien children at the age of 19. They are advised to overcome. They do. Later, in flashbacks, we see Mr. O’Brien working hard, and failing. Life goes on. Bowed, so does O’Brien. That he is portrayed by Brad Pitt—American Ajax, bronzed idol of Hollywood—makes this muted symphony of small frustrations that much harder to watch.
But the malaise some viewers might feel at the site of a defeated Pitt might have spiritual, as well as artistic, underpinnings. Film—more, perhaps, than any other medium—thrives on action. It revels in initiative. Movies demand movement, which is why their heroes take charge: Leave it to characters in novels to think; on screen, they do.
This—and not the largely insignificant fact that so many of its champions happened to be named Goldwyn or Mayer or Spielberg—is what makes cinema a profoundly Jewish art form. On celluloid film and in Jewish spirituality, there’s no room for grace: One is always the hero of one’s own story, and one must always redeem oneself.
To better understand this contentious claim, consider the following, from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s God in Search of Man: “The grand premise of religion is that man is able to surpass himself; that man who is part of this world may enter into a relationship with Him who is greater than the world; that man may lift up his mind and be attached to the absolute; that man who is conditioned by a multiplicity of factors is capable of living with demands that are unconditioned. How does one rise above the horizon of the mind? How does one free oneself from the perspectives of ego, group, earth, and age? How does one find a way in this world that would lead to an awareness of Him who is beyond this world?” One answer to these questions is mitzvot, or good deeds. “A Jew,” Heschel wrote elsewhere, “is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought.”
Any character in any movie is asked to do the exact same thing: Take the leap, surpass yourself, take charge. It’s a summary that fits anything from Chaplin to Charlie’s Angels, overcomers of obstacles all. But it does not, remarkably, fit the O’Briens. Their Texas is a land of predestination, a state of grace that demands of its residents patience and perseverance in the face of disasters big and small.
Job, of course, would fit right in such a place, and it is no coincidence that Malick opens his film with a quote from the Hebrew Bible’s strangest book. It is this: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?” The speaker, of course, is God, and if one is an O’Brien, one has no choice but to stare sheepishly at the ground, say nothing, and await the dying down of the divine ire. Mr. O’Brien himself is fond of such imperious rage: When he insists, for example, that his children call him “Father”—not, heaven forbid, dad or pop—he is every bit the short-tempered Creator, looking at his subjects and reminding them that they’ve no choice but to obey. The children—particularly the oldest, Jack—make their faint attempts at rebellion, but the family drama owes little to the familiar Freudian scheme of budding egos struggling to assert themselves. All that the O’Brien children learn is what their father learned in his day, what every devout Catholic has learned since St. Augustine preached of grace, which is to endure hardship, admit guilt, and await the divine gift of mercy.
How might Jewish audiences respond to such profoundly un-Jewish stirrings on-screen? By summoning the Jewish Job: As he emerges from millennia of rabbinic contemplation, our sufferer is neither Stoic nor Augustinian. As Maimonides had noted, Job’s greatness lies in questioning God at every turn, at hurling accusations at the Almighty—“ You have become cruel to me,” he quips at one point, sounding more like a wronged wife than a righteous saint in the throes of an existential test—and at learning to have a relationship with him whose very essence is unknowable to man. This is what Heschel was talking about—this rising above the horizon of the mind that is at the heart of the Jewish religious experience. It’s a rising only we ourselves can bring about.
Tell that to the O’Briens: As the film stumbles to a close, Jack—now a grown man, portrayed by a rumpled and soulful Sean Penn—walks along a rocky beach, meeting the youthful incarnations of his parents and brothers. He, were are led to believe, had been redeemed, his suffering and perseverance rewarded with a ticket to a surfside paradise. It’s a strange scene—the emotional tenor of which registers somewhere between a Hallmark card and Fauré’s Requiem—and it’s made stranger by the fact that Jack, upon whose moral upbringing we had just gazed for two hours, seems a poor candidate for redemption. As a child, he leans toward cruelty—strapping a frog to a firecracker, injuring his brother, caressing his selfish urges. As an adult, he seems absent, locked in a modern tower of glass and steel, an architect by profession but lacking anything resembling a plan. The only voiceover missing in those final scenes is that of St. Augustine, telling us that we can’t help but sin, and that God’s love will deliver us regardless.
Herein lies Malick’s true genius: As The Tree of Life ends and we file out of the theater, we are left—if our legs and our minds aren’t too numb from all those gasses and Cretaceous creatures milling about—contemplating not only creation but also creators. On the former front, Malick is a committed Catholic, and he bravely surrenders his characters to higher powers. On the latter front, he is far more radical. His quote from Job isn’t accidental. Read it before you’ve seen the movie, and it’s a Catholic exhortation on man’s eternal dependence on God’s good grace. Read if after, and it’s almost a Jewish teaching, shedding light not on man’s wretchedness but on God’s: Just as man cannot know the creator, the creator can never really share man’s earthly delights and is condemned to eternity in a lonely celestial prison cell.
It’s a terrible fate, one on which Milton shed some light in Paradise Lost. When Adam asks God for a mate, the Almighty is bitter. “What think’st thou then of me,” he asks the first man, “and this my state, seem I to thee sufficiently possessed of happiness, or not? Who am alone from all eternity, for none I know second to me or like, equal much less. How have I then with whom to hold converse save with the creatures which I made, and those to me inferior, infinite descents beneath what other creatures are to thee?” It’s the same divine mindset, presumably, that leads God to ask of Job “where wast thou,” the same mindset to which Heschel alludes, a profoundly Jewish state of mind. Embrace it, and the O’Briens may as well be Cohens, and Mr. O’Brien’s helplessness translated into the sort of sweet heartbreak one feels when one—God or father—looks at his creations and realizes that there will forever be an unbridgeable gap between him and his children. This, we Jews can understand.
Which—Hallelujah!—makes The Tree of Life rare not only as a film but also as a theological essay. Singularly committed to the doctrine of grace, it nevertheless allows enough room for alternative views to seep in. It gives us God—splendid, invisible, omnipresent—but admits that all that forgiveness and unrequited mercy can be a terribly alienating business. It’s a Christian movie through and through, but it warmly invites us Jews to partake of its questions. It’s not easy, but we should not resist the challenge.
Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.