Religion is a prominent thematic element in The Tree of Life (2011), but does that make it a “religious film?” What qualifies something as a religious film?
The term “tree of life” is straight out of the Hebrew bible. Its first appearance is in Genesis 2:9: “And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.”
The tree of life alludes to the interconnectivity of all living things. It’s mentioned again in Proverbs and Revelation.
The quote from the book of Job that opens The Tree of Life reads “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth ... when the morning stars sang together?” The film can be perceived as Malick’s attempt to answer that question.
The title of The Tree of Life is taken directly from the Bible. Malick himself is a religious man. The film opens with a quote from the book of Job, and its characters frequently speak to God. All evidence points towards The Tree of Life being a religious film in the sense that it draws heavily on religious influences to tell its story. Yet it doesn’t push a specific religious message. It stars two prominent Hollywood liberals, Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. And The Tree of Life has a distinct appreciation for science as it relates to religion, and religion as it relates to science. What one may think of a “religious film” generally tends to shy away from these things.
Patton Dodd on Patheos.com says, “The Tree of Life’s beginning-of-the-world sequence places its central subjects—the O’Brien family—into a cosmic history. That’s a profoundly Christian and biblical gesture to make. It orients this rather archetypal family quite distinctly to proclaim, as Malick does, that they are part of a long, long story that begins ex nihilo, that involves primordial goo and light separating darkness and prehistoric insentient beings; dinosaurs. The tree of life has many branches. There’s something uniquely Christian, or at least uniquely biblical, about the impulse to tell the story of a family that places that family within an entire mythological framework, from First Things to Final Things.”
The film’s final moments encourage a lot of discussion about its Christian intents, as the sequence involves the characters in a setting easily interpreted as heaven. Whether Malick really is representing heaven or just metaphorically closing the film’s arc, however, is up for debate - and likely unanswerable.
As Matt Zoller Seitz noted online, citing a series of articles about the film’s Christianity (here, here, and here), The Tree of Life is more concerned with creating something that can spawn an internal dialogue within the viewer. It has its religious influence, sure, but what that means to every distinct person who watches it can be different. It’s a religious film if you want it to be.
Patton Dodd finishes his article with a good sentiment about how to interpret the film’s themes:
“I’ll also note that with films that are as open-ended and abstract as Terrence Malick’s, we’re always in danger of reading ourselves into them—or, more optimistically, we’re always invited to read ourselves into them. Malick’s films, more so than those of most any filmmaker working today, are anthologies of questions set within narrative contexts, and it’s almost always easier, and perhaps more productive, to respond to his films not with an attempt to discover what he’s telling us, but rather, with an attempt to understand the questions he is asking of the world.”