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What Does Your God Look Like? A Decidedly Limited Essay

Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life
What Does Your God Look Like? A Decidedly Limited Essay

Portrayals of God in the history of film extend from the disastrous to the blasphemous with a lot of the downright silly in between. From the holier-than-holy glowing backlight behind the head of Jesus in King of Kings (1927) to the white-suited janitor God in Bruce Almighty or the cigar-chomping jokester played by George Burns, God has proved resistant to the idol-making mode that the concreteness of the film medium inevitably slips into.

But this is true because so many of the portrayals of God in movies require Him to be an active character in the film. Unfortunately, lack of imagination in too many filmmakers causes them to fail to see any way to involve Him in the action without fashioning Him in human form. This human portrayal usually takes two forms: 1) historical—or at least semi-historical—as in The Passion of the Christ or Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ or 2) consciously docetic, where “God” admits He’s only dressing in human form so the other characters in the movie can understand Him, as in Burns’s turn in Oh, God! (By the way, lest one think portraying God this way is a passing fad, there is a re-make of Oh, God! scheduled for release in 2012 with Betty White rumored to be attached). The only non-human portrayal of God visually—voices from the sky or in the head don’t really count—that readily comes to mind is that of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life where God appears as a twinkling star at the beginning of the movie. Talk about theological mishmash.

And then there’s Terrence Malick. In Malick’s magisterial The Tree of Life, God is a very active participant in the affairs of His universe, both at the macro and the micro level. He creates. He directs the stars and the seas. He guides human lives, lives of anger and despair and lives of delight and hope. He causes to grow. He loves. He punishes. He gives. He takes away. He inscrutably reminds the viewer that He “laid the foundations of the earth”, while “the morning stars sang together”, as the quotation from Job 38:4, 7, appearing at the beginning of the film, tells us.

But how does God appear visually in The Tree of Life? In a demonstration of his artfulness, Malick, avoiding the human altogether, presents God as a digitally generated, flickering, disembodied orange/yellow/red/blue light. The light appears near the beginning, several times throughout, and at the end of the film. The flame of course has been a symbol of God’s presence before in movies. The lighting of the candle at the beginning of Schindler’s List is perhaps the most recent, and the fire in the burning bush in The Ten Commandments the most prominent, example. But representation of God has never been done digitally, and clearly so, before. With this addition, Malick takes the image to an even higher level of abstraction and points even more profoundly to a God Who is beyond our feeble attempts to represent Him.

The flame in the film is dynamic—ever changing but ever staying the same, Hermann Hesse might say—but it is also mysterious and powerful, warm and approachable, all at the same time.

Malick has caught perfectly the idea of God embodied in the story of the burning bush in Exodus 3:1-6. There God calls to Moses out of the flame, but He only tells him to approach if he is willing to remove his shoes. God is willing to condescend to speak with Moses and to answer His objections, while at the same time commanding Him to act. He declares Himself the God Who has heard the cries of His people and Who will be with Moses when he goes back to Egypt to confront Pharaoh, but also the One Who engenders such fear in Moses that He hides His face from Him. It is hard to think of a better image for Malick to use to reflect the competing aspects of the love and justice of God, which form such a crucial part of the film.

Malick, both a writer and director, has famously made only five movies in twenty-eight years. Beginning with Badlands, followed by Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World, Malick asks only big questions and cares only for rich, thick subject matter. This serious attitude does not allow lukewarm reactions to his films so most people either love or hate them. Some adore all of them, some despise all of them, many love some and hate others, but it is rare that the reflective film critic can take or leave a Terrence Malick film.

Tree does have lacuna; Denis Haack has rightly pointed out in his review in Critique that Malick does a lot with forgiveness in the film, but with no cogent proffering of, or even reference to, atonement. Nevertheless, The Tree of Life is the best Malick film so far, and it is so by far. Painstakingly made (it was shot over two years ago and took over twelve months to edit until he was satisfied with it), Life displays a maturity and grace that presents better than any film ever has the portrayal of the largest question of all: who and where is God? Not that Life answers these questions in quite the way we might expect, and that is just what makes it such a brilliant film and so infinitely discussable.

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