Albert Imperato: Music and Grace: Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life

Terrence Malick’s new and profoundly beautiful film, The Tree of Life, is, among many things, a very good thing for classical music. For people who already love classical music, the film provides numerous moments to savor it in a very rich setting. For people who don’t already connect with classical music, I suspect that many of them will check the film’s credits, or buy the soundtrack, to begin their voyage of discovery.

The pacing and flow of the movie is very much musical in nature, and over and over again pieces of classical music surge into the foreground, or recede into the background, sometimes in harmony and at other times in contrast to the images. I can’t remember the last time I saw a film in which music, particularly classical music, played such an essential role in telling the story.

For all the grandiosity of Malick’s vision in Tree of Life, it is essentially an intimate film, and music plays a role on every level of the story. The basic plot goes this way: The O’Briens — Brad Pitt playing the stern patriarch, and Jessica Chastain playing the tender and dreamy mother — are an American couple in 1950s middle America who have lost one of their three sons. This tragic event lets loose powerful forces that alter their relationship, and sets off a battle for the young souls of their other children, particularly the eldest son. We meet that son at the beginning of the film, when his grown up version — played by Sean Penn — begins to unravel, as memories of his turbulent relationship with his father, and the senseless loss of his brother, threaten to overwhelm him.

The conflict that fuels the film’s drama could have been the name of a Handel oratorio: “The Battle Between Grace and Nature.” The first is embodied by the deeply faithful mother, who believes that love is essentially the only answer to man’s suffering and isolation; the second is represented by the father, who, not able to achieve his own dreams of success, attempts to toughen up his young sons to the hard truths of life. But the dichotomy isn’t so cut and dry. True, the father rides the boys hard to do their chores to unattainable perfection. And he invites them to hit him in the face when he’s teaching them to box, something that clearly troubles them deeply. But he also has a genuinely sensitive side. More specifically, he has a thing for music.

Nothing seems to make Mr. O’Brien happier and more fulfilled than music, whether spinning Toscanini’s recording of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, or even better, sitting himself down in front of the piano — or on the bench in front of the local church’s organ — to play Bach. His own divided nature comes back into focus when he tells the boys that Toscanini did “65 takes” before finishing the recording, but still told the musicians afterwards that they could all have done better.

Visually, the shadow and light and color of suburban American life has rarely appeared on the screen in such rich and suggestive hues, but I can’t recall ever seeing such a familiar American imagery meshed with such a wide variety of classical music. The “nature sounds” that open Mahler’s First Symphony are prevalent, as are the spare, mystical tones of contemporary composer Sir John Tavener. The surging, river-inspired music of Smetana’s Die Moldau provides a sense of overflowing joy as the O’Brien boys romp around outdoors under a bright and benevolent sun. What a pleasure it was for me to have my own childhood memories of running through a field, or making trouble with friends, stimulated by these images as the music that has become such a big part of my adult life soars along!

When Malick zooms out to the point of view of the cosmos, or zooms in to the level of a cell, to connect the family drama to the boundless push and pull of universal forces, selections of classical music play a pivotal role in making the connections — especially in the climactic final scene, when Malick uses transcendent moments from Berlioz’s Requiem to transporting effect.

As experienced in The Tree of Life, music is no less than grace itself — the very language of the spirit. Regardless of how wide and lasting an impact the film will have, Malick has made the most persuasive case for the relevance of classical music — if one was ever needed, and whether he intended to do so or not.

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