The New Yorker's film critic, David Denby, damns director Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life with loud praise as an "insufferable" masterpiece.
Denby is effusive in lauding the beauty and artistic daring of Malick's long-awaited new movie. What he cannot endure is Tree of Life's open Christianity. What makes him writhe is that everyone is openly talking about the film's open Christianity.
The first source of discomfort is expected. It's so expected that it goes beyond formula to cliché. It is enough of an affront to secular liberal sensibilities, after all, that the film opens with a non-ironic Biblical quotation. Its truly unpardonable offences, though, are that it a) treats the Catholic Mass with authentic respect and b) resolves the story's central conflict by having a mother surrendering the agony of her son's death to God.
Scattering bits of the Bible throughout a Hollywood script is one thing, though it can be made acceptable if limited to conventional scenes in which the characters are greasy hypocrites, grinningly insane, or about to turn into the devil and start vomiting.
Modern movie-making that actually treats Catholicism as worthy, and its liturgy as serious, is a different order of violation. It is to be always and everywhere looked on as something shocking, though Heaven knows even it pales by comparison with the cinematic horror of showing the realities of hard grace and true redemption.
What distresses Denby above and beyond all of this, though, is that people—well, Manhattanites anyway, and who else matters?—are all talking about it. The New Yorker's film critic cannot go to a simple dinner party, it seems, without someone, somewhere "between the salmon and the strawberries" raising the risible topic of The Tree of Life.
The tormenting, the "insufferable", part is that they don't know what to say. Indeed, they don't even know what to think about a film that is so good about a topic that is so off-limits. In the world of 2011 art, this is the unforgiven. All of life is situational and ambiguous except opinion, which is required by social edict, if not legal statute, to carry the conviction of a meat cleaver.
What would become of society if those who chatter axiomatically were to admit the acid of unknowing into their relativism? Why, the whole thing would fall apart. Mongering might give way to meditation on something greater than the self or even, shield the children's ears, a contemplative regard for the infinite wonder of the God-given world that exists beyond the individual's synapses.
As the Catholic theologian Fr. Luigi Guissani puts it in his book The Religious Sense, we are all so in love with our opinions about the objects of the world that we prefer those opinions to the objective reality of the world, a reality that is Faith. The Tree of Life asks us—allows us to—suspend that love of our own opinions by sitting for two hours in theatre dark and staring into a narrative and visual realization of that Faith. Even the New Yorker's film critic admits the result is a masterpiece. It's what the masterpiece means that he cannot suffer.