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By Michael Calleri

Filmmaker Terrence Malick is an iconoclast. In addition to disliking talking about his movies, he also loathes having a photograph of himself used to publicize his pictures. In a business in which you are sometimes measured against others in your field by the size of your mansion, Malick avoids the trappings of success. He is a man for whom a kind word about one of his movies would be more welcome than a selection of things that money can buy.

Malick makes films that get people talking. His latest feature, "The Tree of Life," will be no exception. The movie is original enough to stand on its own, but it's easy to compare it to Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" -- which, by the way, despite having been released in 1968, still holds up as if it were newly made. Both "The Tree of Life" and Kubrick's epic are entertaining and challenging.

Malick and Kubrick are two of the more unique figures in contemporary filmmaking, each having made a limited number of features. Years went by between movies for Kubrick, and Malick's output is similar. Since his directorial debut in 1973 with "Badlands," Malick has released only four other films, including "Days of Heaven" (1978), "The Thin Red Line" (1998), "The New World" (2005), and now "The Tree of Life," which Malick wrote and which stars Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Fiona Shaw and Hunter McCracken.

After the release of "Days of Heaven," Malick disappeared from public view. He moved to Paris, where he taught philosophy. Years before, as a university student, he had been a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. He lived in Paris for 15 years, and then returned to the United States. He currently resides in Austin, Texas, where he grew up as a child.

In simplest terms, "The Tree of Life" is about spirituality and the power family has over people. Visually, the movie is superb. The cinematography is by Emmanuel Lubezki. Five editors are credited.

Intellectually, the film is at times demanding and perplexing. Overall, the movie contains some of the most psychologically insightful and joyous filmmaking possible. It is a cinematic poem.

There is very little dialogue, and most of those lines are spoken by Pitt, who plays a stern father. Pitt walks through the picture with his jaw jutted forward and a look of permanent discontent on his face. He is employed, but his true passion is music. He wanted to be a classical conductor.

Much of the other sparse dialogue is spoken by the man's three sons. Chastain, who plays Pitt's wife, speaks the film-length, voice-over narration. They live with their children in the suburbs of Waco, Texas, in the 1950s, an idyllic time in America.

Many of the family's days, events and gatherings are seen through the memory of the eldest son, Jack, played by Penn, as he looks back from the present. As it was in most of the United States during that era, the wife and children are subservient to the needs of the man.

There are moments when you sense the father's deep vulnerability. And there are times when you feel the fear of his wife and kids, who attempt to cope with the anger in the house through whatever joy they can find.

Malick seems to be saying that it was extremely difficult being a man in America in the '50s. Everything rises from male shoulders. I am certain that we are seeing Malick's own childhood. I won't spoil anything for you, but there is a scene where mom and the boys celebrate their momentary liberation. You'll know it when you see it.

From the very beginning of "The Tree of Life," you are aware that you are not watching an ordinary movie. The film is a contrast between two ways of understanding not only the human condition, but also the very nature of our existence on earth.

We watch a metaphorical struggle between nature and grace. In the movie, nature represents negativity and human unhappiness. Grace represents hope and the ability to experience enjoyment in the face of natural aggression. Pitt's character represents nature. His wife represents grace.

To call "The Tree of Life" a film about a family is to lessen its power. The family scenes are only part of what is an astonishing work of art. The are many levels to the movie, and much of the philosophy Malick shares with the audience is done visually.

There are astonishing shots of the universe -- the sky's great beyond, if you will. We see trees and flowers and waterfalls, mountains and deserts and oceans. Flocks of birds, schools of fish, even dinosaurs show up. Not only is Malick focusing on the thread of family life, but he is also delivering his interpretation of the meaning of God. In fact, some may see it as his attempt to film God. In some respects, the director has made a very religious movie.

"The Tree of Life" is also about memory. How do humans recall their past? And frankly, why is it necessary?

The fantastical scenes are fluid and quite beautiful. The scenes with Pitt, Chastain and the boys are the most lucid. They are bathed in a kind of glow, a summer haze. The scenes with Penn (the adult Jack) are the most abstract. He is surrounded by the harsh angles of modern buildings.

Malick is giving us life as humans consciously experience it. He knows our memories clash with the realities of the world outside our front door. We can think of the past, but we have to contend with the present.

Malick shows us a world we think we know, and we realize, as the images unfold, that we know very little. Granted, this is the world as he envisions it, and you can certainly disagree with his point of view, but I don't think you can dismiss his ambition.

Every frame of this beautiful movie is alive with ideas.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com June 28, 2011