Spirit(uality) in the Films of Terrence Malick

By Barnett, Christopher B. | Journal of Religion and Film, April 2013 | Go to article overview

Spirit(uality) in the Films of Terrence Malick


Barnett, Christopher B., Journal of Religion and Film


Introduction

Though Terrence Malick's diverse cinematic career spans a number of decades, his work over the last fifteen years or so has manifested a noticeable interest in religious ideas and themes. For instance, The Thin Red Line (1998) utilizes the Guadalcanal Campaign of World War II as a backdrop for ruminations on eternity, sacrifice and theodicy. Similarly, The New World (2005) explores the nature of love and the ever-present tension between creation, creator and creature. And yet, it is The Tree of Life (2011) that most clearly exhibits a desire to engage theological issues, particularly from within the traditions of Judaism and Christianity. Its title is taken from Genesis 3:22-referring to the source of immortality from which Adam and Eve are forbidden to eat after disobeying God-and it opens with a quote that sets the stage for the film's many questions: "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?.../When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" (Job 38:4,7).1

From the outset, then, a theological reading of The Tree of Life is demanded, and the film as such does nothing to dispel this approach. It juxtaposes a story about the loss of a child-and the conflicting feelings and memories that accompany such an event-with, quite literally, recreations of the origin and evolution of life on earth. Never one to shy away from ambitious themes, Malick here seems to be doing nothing short of probing the meaning of life.

However, if The Tree of Life would appear to cement Malick as a theological filmmaker, it is nevertheless the case that Malick's connection to the philosophy of Martin Heidegger-an avowed, if not exactly straightforward, atheist-has received more scholarly attention. After all, Malick studied Heidegger at both Harvard and Oxford, and he even published a translation of Heidegger's Vom Wesen des Grundes. And though Malick later abandoned his academic pursuits, critics have argued that his art manifests his philosophical commitments, so much so that The Thin Red Line has been dubbed "Heideggerian cinema."2

But must these approaches be mutually exclusive? Indeed, that might seem to be the case, if one were to set about Malick's films "dogmatically," in other words, as illustrations of religious teachings on creation, fall, love and so forth. Such an approach might yield some noteworthy points of connection, but would risk reducing Malick's art to a mere vehicle for catechesis.3 That is not the sort of reading I want to offer here. Rather than expand on what Malick's films say about the divine, I want to focus on how they struggle, beautifully, to manifest God. I will do so by considering one of the more noticeable aspects of Malick's movies, namely, his interest in nature and, above all, his consistent use of wind imagery. Specifically, I will argue that Malick's copious shots of the wind stirring trees, grass, curtains and so on not only recall certain ideas about God as "spirit," but also hint at the ever mysterious nature of the divine. In this way, Malick's films represent a kind of spirituality-one that not only allows for exchange with the thought of Heidegger, but perhaps even stands as the ne plus ultra of Malick's cinematic vision.

God as Spirit in the Bible and in Theology

The problem of how to manifest the divine is an ancient one, and, to be sure, it receives more than a little attention in both Judaism and Christianity. On the one hand, a number of biblical writings describe God in physical terms. For instance, the book of Genesis depicts God as "walking in the garden in the cool of the day" (Genesis 3:8), and Moses was said to have spoken to the LORD "face to face, as a man speaks to his friend" (Exodus 33:11). Moreover, this condescension of the divine to the human is taken up and advanced in Christianity, which insists that Jesus of Nazareth is "the image of the invisible God" (Colossians 1:15), the deity incarnatus. …

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