Nostalgia in The Tree of Life 

The Tree of Life is a 2011 film directed by Terrence Malick. After the unexpected death of his little 19-year-old brother, we follow the adult Jack O’Brien, a lost soul in the modern, contemporary world, reminiscing about his childhood life at home in Texas in the 1950s. In a very allusive and associative structure Malick depicts the film’s central themes of love, death, grief, and humanity’s existential choice between the way of nature and the way of grace.

The Tree of Life is not only a cinematic version of the past, here the 50s, but also a very subjective one through the eyes of one protagonist. The Tree of Life presents nostalgia realized not through selection of an era’s greatest hits, but through the resonance of personal emotional memory. The viewer shares Jack’s emotional fragments of memory, selectively remembering good and bad memories from his youth that function as a bridge-way on his return-path to “home.” But while Jack’s memories take him back to his youth, his nostalgia is ultimately one for the “absolute” as he tries to find the way of his mother and brother: the way of Grace. In this scene, Jack and his brothers are at their happiest when the patriarchal father goes away on a business trip, leaving mom in charge and sparking the film’s most idyllic family sequences. Lightness and brightness are fanning the house. The camera follows Mrs. O’Brian and the three brothers very floatingly, moving back and forth, panning, almost like the memory In Jack’s mind. The lighting, the attention to details of furniture, e.g. the fridge, and to Mrs. O’Brian’s clothes and finally the quiet piano music make the scene feel like an aestheticized dream-like childhood memory.

In his article Movie-Made America Robert Sklar defines nostalgia very simply: “the desire to return in thought to former times“. Jack is torn between his mother, who represents grace and love, and his father, who beliefs in a natural survival instinct and the included possibility that people can oppress each other and is therefore the disciplinary in the house. The adult Jack is a troubled and conflicted persona in a modern world and Jack’s nostalgia is a kind of homesickness, a longing for better times when his brother was still alive. Therefore, in the film the term “nostalgia” must be seen in reference to the power of memory and the desire for a sense of “home”. To feel nostalgic is to be filled with memories, which produce longing for that metaphysical sense of home, or, that place where fulfillment and significance meet. It is this feeling of home that Jack is reminiscing for, because if you cannot make sense of the present, you are looking back to the origins, to the past, to the place you were coming from.

So all in all, Malick depicts a nostalgia that is very personal and is deeply rooted in the longing for home, warmth and feeling of security.


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