What if I told you the greatest Christian movie ever made wasn’t The passion of Christ? What if I told you that it was not produced by the Christian entertainment industry? What if I told you that those involved don’t want anything to do with being labeled “Christians”?
The movie I’m talking about is Terrence Malick 2011 Tree of life, which was recently re-released by the Criterion Collection with a new extended fit and tons of bonus features. This masterpiece not only tells a story of Christian redemption, but unlike so many “Christian” films, its beauty and craftsmanship actually invokes Christian worship.
Malick, a Texan who lives near Austin and is a practicing Episcopalian, has made a career of writing and directing unorthodox films haunted by orthodoxy. From his first feature film, Wild lands, to his most recent film, Knight of Cups, Malick’s work presents theodiceas, allusions and allegories related to Christian history.
Of everything Malick has done Tree of life stands out as the most distinctly and explicitly Christian. Starring Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, the film juxtaposes the personal history of a 1950s Texan family with the cosmic history of the world. Establishing and building from a uniquely Christian framework, Malick interweaves notions of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration on both a micro and macro scale. It also takes big ideas about the meaning of existence, the reality of death and suffering, eternity, grace, nature, sin, shame and so many other things.
Although there is no time of arrival to Jesus in Tree of life, Malick’s movie basically says that there is something broken in our world, and that there is only one way to approach it and fix it, through “the way of grace “. Whether it is a church scene that lingers over a stained glass image of Christ or a parallel with the character of the mother played by Chastain, this manner obviously refers to Jesus Christ.
There is something to be said for the way Malick expresses his Christian attitudes and beliefs on screen. He doesn’t delete them, but neither does he communicate them as if he were in the pulpit. While many Christian films, made by Christians drawn from the Christian industry, feature didactic dialogues and scenes that include things like “the sinner’s prayer”, Tree of life convey similar ideas without the heaviness.
Ironically, Malick delves into darker themes of suffering and death, particularly in Tree of life, makes its films more Christian than the average Christian movie that hits theaters. As theologian and author Frederick Buechner once said, “The gospel is bad news before it is good news.” Yet most Christian films jump on the good news too quickly, becoming entangled and out of touch.
Coping with life’s hardships, including abuse, shame and loss, Tree of life don’t shy away from bad news. The movie sits down and soaks in and makes you do the same, then the hope that emerges from it feels more believable and is all the sweeter.
Malick’s film also understands what is beautiful about the way it tells this story. With a distinct lyrical style of constant voiceovers and edits, each shot and scene gives us a window into heaven. It’s as if Malick treated his films as religious sacraments meant to stoke worship, especially through visuals that capture the wonder, grace and beauty of the human experience, bridging the gap between creation and creator. .
For those who prefer their films simple, light and easy to digest, like the typical Christian film, Malick’s job will prove to be difficult. As seen in Tree of life, he is slow and meticulous. After all, despite its critical success, Tree of life became notorious for theater walkouts, as some viewers thought they were getting a standard Brad Pitt movie.
Still, winning Malick’s fifth feature film is well worth it and the effort. Although he does not define himself as a Christian filmmaker, The tree of life perhaps the greatest Christian film ever made.
David Roark is a writer and communications director for an evangelical church in Dallas. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.
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