They are two artsy movies, to be sure, but movies that clearly reflect spiritual viewpoints. Melancholia and The Tree of Life are similar in many ways but act as two sides of the same coin, looking at the cosmos and finding either emptiness and meaning there.
This Easter weekend, if you’re looking for movies to add to your spiritual celebration, you can do worse than meditating on these two films.
Good Friday and Saturday: Melancholia
Presented in two acts, the story follows Justine (Kirsten Dunst), a bride trying and failing to care about her wedding. Pitch-black humor and wicked characterizations of people back up her suspicion that nothing matters and humanity is evil. She knows love, life, work, even eating, are meaningless in an empty universe.
The second act takes place as the Earth watches a giant planet that may or may not be on a collision course with our planet, one that would wipe out all life.
The only rational person in the movie then becomes Justine, who knows and accepts that life is meaningless and the universe empty. The end of human existence for her is a consummation greatly to be desired. She welcomes annihilation as one would welcome a lover.
Oddly for a meaningless universe, Justine uses one meaningful word: Evil. She believes humanity to be evil.
In its depression, recognition of evil, and hopelessness, it is an excellent portrait of a world in which the Savior has died and hope was only an illusion. In its amazing cinematography, it explores the cosmos and humanity with breathtaking beauty.
Be Aware: Rated R for graphic (but artsy) nudity, language, and sexual content. A grown-up movie for adults.
Resurrection Sunday: The Tree of Life
Looking at the same cosmos with equally breathtaking cinematography, the fragmentary film follows a middle aged man (Sean Penn) as he remembers his brother, killed years ago at 19, and reflects on his relationship with God and his own brokenness. Many of his mental memories of spirituality were influenced by his Mother (Jessica Chastain), angelic in memory, and his hard Father (Brad Pitt) as he grew up in the 60s in Texas.
Like a stained glass window, the film is made of pieces of images, story, and music that appeal differently to each viewer.
For me, the primary concept that keeps echoing around my head as I go through life is the opening prologue which compares the way of nature with the way of grace.
“The nuns taught us there were two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace,” whispers the Mother, “You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.”
“Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.”
“The nuns taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.”
“I will be true to You. Whatever comes.”
114 words, spoken in the movie haltingly, as if each word matters, imposed over images of a beautiful mother as she smiles through the world around her. These words are her statement of faith, her framework for her life, and her challenge when tragedy strikes.
This, then is the opposite side, the hope of Resurrection, the sure recognition of the evil within but tempered with hope of salvation.
Same cosmos. Same starting point. Vastly different endpoints.
Like Friday on the Cross and Sunday in the Garden.
Rated PG-13, the film is appropriate for children, and would be a fascinating conversation starter with children, if you can get them to sit through it. It’s not Sponge Bob. Both Melancholia and Tree of Life are available for home viewing through streaming, rental, or purchase.