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'The Tree of Life'

Merie Wallace/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Terrence Malick's latest is a major film that is both difficult and beautiful.

Brandishing an ambition it's likely no film, including this one, could entirely fulfill, The Tree of Life is nonetheless a singular work, an impressionistic metaphysical inquiry into mankind's place in the grand scheme of things that releases waves of insights amid its narrative imprecisions. This fifth feature in Terrence Malick's eccentric four-decade career is a beauteous creation that ponders the imponderables, asks the questions that religious and thoughtful people have posed for millennia and provokes expansive philosophical musings along with intense personal introspection.

As such, it is hardly a movie for the masses and will polarize even buffs, some of whom might fail to grasp the connection between the depiction of the beginnings of life on Earth and the travails of a 1950s Texas family. But there are great, heady things here, both obvious and evanescent, more than enough to qualify this as an exceptional and major film. Critical passions, pro and con, along with Brad Pitt in one of his finest performances will stir specialized audiences to attention, but Fox Searchlight will have its work cut out for it in luring a wider public.

Shot three years ago and molded and tinkered with ever since by Malick and no fewer than five editors, Life is shaped in an unconventional way, not as a narrative with normal character arcs and dramatic tension but more like a symphony with several movements --each expressive of its own natural phenomena and moods. Arguably, music plays a much more important role here than do words (there is some voice-over but scarcely any dialogue for nearly an hour), whereas the soaring, sometimes grandiose soundtrack -- comprising 35 mostly classical excerpts drawn from Bach, Brahms, Berlioz, Mahler, Holst, Respighi, Gorecki and others in addition to the contributions of Alexandre Desplat -- dominates in the way it often did in Stanley Kubrick's work. Indeed, this comparison is inevitable, as Life is destined to be endlessly likened to 2001: A Space Odyssey because  of the spacy imagery of undefinable celestial lights and formations as well as its presentation of key hypothetical moments in the evolution of life on this planet. There are also equivalent long stretches of silence and semi-boredom designed, perhaps, to provide some time to muse about matters rarely raised in conventional narrative films.

That Malick intends to think large is indicated by an opening quotation from the Book of Job, in which God intimidates the humble man by demanding: "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the Earth? Tell me, if you have understanding." Job is not cited again but is more or less paraphrased when, in moments of great personal distress, a small-town mother cries out, "Lord, why? Where are you?" and "What are we to you?"

Life doesn't answer these questions but fashions a relationship between its big-picture perspective and its intimate story that crucially serves the film's philosophical purposes. Much of the early going is devoted to spectacular footage of massive natural phenomena, both in space and on Earth: gaseous masses, light and matter in motion, volcanic explosions, fire and water, the creation and growth of cells and organisms and eventually the evolution of jellyfish and even dinosaurs.

Occupying a pleasant but not lavish home on a wide dirt street in a town that matches one's idealized vision of a perfect 1950s community, the O'Brien family is dominated by a military veteran father (Pitt) who lays down the law to his three boys seemingly more by rote than because of any necessity. Within Malick's scheme of things, Dad represents nature, while Mom (Jessica Chastain) stands for grace. But working in a manner diametrically opposed to that of theater dramatists inclined to spell everything out, Malick opens cracks and wounds by inflection, indirection and implication. Using fleet camerawork and jump-cutting that combine to intoxicating effect, the picture builds to unanticipated levels of disappointment and tragedy, much of it expressed with a minimum of dialogue in the final stages of Pitt's terrific performance.

For a time, it seems that placing the everyday doings of the family in the shadow of the seismic convulsions pertaining to the planet's creation represents an elaborate way of expressing what Bogart said in Casablanca, that "the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."

But whatever else can -- and will -- be said about it, Life gets the balance of its extraordinary dual perspective between the cosmic and momentary remarkably right, which holds it together even during its uncertain stretches.

Venue Cannes Film Festival, Competition
Release date Friday, May 27 (Searchlight)
Cast Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Fiona Shaw, Irene Bedard, Jessica Fuselier
Writer-director Terrence Malick
Producers Sarah Green, Bill Pohlad, Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Grant Hill
Rated PG-13, 138 minutes