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Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, and Brad Pitt star in Terrence Malick’s epic masterpiece, The Tree of Life

THE TREE OF LIFE (Terrence Malick, 2011)
BAMfilm, BAM Rose Cinemas
30 Lafayette Ave. between Ashland Pl. & St. Felix St.
August 28-30
Series runs through September 5

The BAM series “Programmers’ Notebook: On Memory,” consisting of works involving creative, cinematic ways of the mind’s relationship with the past, continues August 28-30 with an unforgettable gem. As of 2005, iconoclastic writer-director Terrence Malick had made only five feature films in his forty-plus-year career, but his 2011 effort, The Tree of Life, is his very best. Following Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), and The New World (2005), The Tree of Life is an epic masterpiece of massive proportions, a stirring visual journey into the beginning of the universe, the end of the world, and beyond. The unconventional nonlinear narrative essentially tells the story of a middle-class Texas family having a difficult time coming to grips with the death of one of their sons in the military. Malick cuts between long flashbacks of Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) in the 1950s and 1960s, as they meet, marry, and raise their three boys, to the present, when Jack (Sean Penn), their eldest, now a successful architect, is still searching for answers. The sets by production designer Jack Fisk transport viewers from midcentury suburbia to the modern-day big city and a heavenly beach, all gorgeously shot by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Every frame is so beautiful, it’s as if they filmed the movie only at sunrise and sunset, the Golden Hour, when the light is at its most pure. The Tree of Life is about God and not God, about faith and belief, about evolution and creationism, about religion and the scientific world. The film opens with a quote from the Book of Job: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation . . . while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” Early on Mrs. O’Brien says in voice-over, “The nuns taught us there are two ways through life: The way of nature, and the way of grace. You have to choose which one to follow.” Malick doesn’t get caught up in those questions, instead focusing on the miracles of life and death and everything in between.

Sean Penn plays an architect searching for answers in The Tree of Life

With the help of Douglas Trumbull, the special effects legend behind 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind — and who hasn’t been involved in a Hollywood film in some thirty years — Malick travels through time and space, using almost no CGI. Instead, he employs images from the Hubble telescope along with Thomas Wilfred’s flickering “Opus 161” art installation, which evokes a kind of eternal flame that appears in between the film’s various sections. Malick brings out the Big Bang, dinosaurs, and the planets during this inner and outer head trip of a movie that will leave you breathless with anticipation at where he is going to take you next, and where he goes is never where expected, accompanied by Alexandre Desplat’s ethereal orchestral score. But perhaps more than anything else, The Tree of Life, which won the Palme d’Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, is about the act of creation, from the creation of the universe and the world to the miracle of procreation (and the creation of cinema itself). Mr. O’Brien is an inventor who continually seeks out patents but always wanted to be a musician; he plays the organ in church, but his dream of creating his own symphony has long been dashed. And Jack is an architect, a man who creates and builds large structures but is unable to get his own life in order. In creating The Tree of Life, Malick has torn down convention, coming up with something fresh and new, something that combines powerful human emotions with visual wizardry, a multimedia poem about life and death, the alpha and the omega. “Programmers’ Notebook: On Memory” runs through September 5 and includes such other films as Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Christopher Nolan’s Memento, and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment.

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