Reflections on Filmmaker Terrence Malick and His Rumored Life of Christ

(L to R) Terrence Malick, Christian Bale/Wikimedia Commons

According to various reports, filmmaker Terrence Malick is working, at least in part in Italy, on a movie about the life of Christ … but no one knows quite what it will be.

Malick (IMDB page here) is known for an eclectic string of films, including the crime drama Badlands (1973); romantic drama Days of Heaven (1978); epic war film The Thin Red Line (1998); the experimental epic family drama The Tree of Life (2011), a deeply philosophical film that attracted praise from many Christians for its Biblical themes (and confusion from other quarters); the love story To the Wonder (2013); and 2015’s Knight of Cups, an experimental drama about a depressed screenwriter’s sojourn through Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Regarding The Tree of Life, Catholic movie reviewer Deacon Steven Greydanus wrote:

The Tree of Life blends an impressionistic portrait of a Catholic family living in a suburb of Waco, Texas, in the 1950s (and glimpsed in later decades) with a majestic procession of images from distant galaxies to microscopic organisms, exploding volcanoes to wounded dinosaurs. There are also surreal images and flashes of magical realism. Some critics have felt that Malick would have done better to omit the IMAX eye candy and focus on the human story; others have argued that it’s the cosmic grandeur that works and the banal human story that bogs it down.

Most recently, Malick released A Hidden Life, a biopic of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer, husband and father, who was executed for refusing to fight on behalf of the Nazis during World War II. The Church beatified him in 2007.

Now, according to reports, Malick is tackling Christ. From Aleteia:

“What does Christ want from us?”

According to Martin Scorsese, Terrence Malick posed this question to his fellow director in a letter after seeing Silence, the former’s long-awaited film about Jesuit missionaries in Japan.

The filmmaker has reportedly been shooting a new film titled The Last Planet, which “narrates various passages in the life of Christ, with the representation of evangelical parables.” One Italian website captured on-set images of “a man with a donkey” approaching “a sort of face in the sand” in the coastal town of Lazio, and quoted one person on set as saying that “the film is about humanity, starting from the Big Bang to the Apocalypse.” There are not a lot of other details available at this point, except that Malick has apparently been shooting around Rome as well as Iceland (a shooting location for The Tree of Life and Voyage of Time), and that actors Ben Kingsley and Björn Thors have been spotted on set.

FTP’s producer-at-large, Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a 2016 graduate of USC’s film school, is a Malick fan and was very exited to hear the news. So, I threw a few questions his way about the enigmatic filmmaker, an Illinois native who attended an Episcopal boarding school, then Harvard, Oxford and the American Film Institute Conservancy.

What’s your personal history with the films of Terrence Malick?

KUNA: I saw my first Terrence Malick film, the WWII film The Thin Red Line (TRRL), while attending the University of Notre Dame. It was a life-changing experience, to say the least. I began thinking in more philosophical terms towards the end of college, as theology interested me more and more. One would think ND’s top-flight philosophy and theology departments would have activated that desire, but for me it was film.

According to reports, Malick is filming a life of Christ. What do you hope it might be?

KUNA: Given his propensity to explore creation, whether through Job’s tour of the cosmos in Tree of Life, or in the documentary Voyage of Time, my best guess is that he takes up Jesus Christ as the Alpha and Omega. We see Christ working His redemption through the beginning of the universe until its apocalyptic end.

Some mainstream filmmakers use Christian themes and imagery, even Bible stories, without being believers themselves. Where do you think Malick fits in this spectrum?

KUNA: If memory serves me, Malick comes from a Syrian Christian background. He is a believer, although I can’t attest to how much he practices. One of his actors Jim Caviezel (Pvt. Witt in TTRL) once said if St. Pope John Paul II had practiced filmmaking instead of writing philosophy while serving as pope, he would have been a director like Terrence Malick.

What could filmmakers striving to put a Christian message into their films learn from Malick?

KUNA: As impressionistic as his films come off as, each one, like a soundly crafted homily centers around one underlying dramatic question. So, there’s always some subtext a filmmaker, whether Christian or not, will layer on. Make the subtext about one thing, and then write your story around it.

What are your top five Malick films, and why?

KUNA: The Thin Red Line (TTRL) and Tree of Life rank as my top two Terrence Malick films. TTRL because it played such a big part in my journey to priesthood and religious life. Tree of Life wins out, however, because of its depiction of domestic life. I’ve never been near war nor do I ever want to experience it, so TTRL remains somewhat inaccessible in a good way.

To the Wonder sits at #3. It best represents my answer to an earlier question. The dramatic question at the center of the film is conveyed in a literal whisper as the Olga Kurylenko character, through voiceover, mentions her previous marriage in France was declared valid after she sought the annulment process. This means her current relationship with Ben Affleck’s character is irregular.

That the two try to personally affirm the relationship through a justice of peace (and later, a Protestant service) doesn’t quash the objective sacramental reality of her previous marriage. She gradually realizes this and ends the relationship. And as a viewer, I felt good about the breakup.

#4 is Knight of Cups because it’s the most impressionistic and non-linear of all of his films. Truly a work of art. Days of Heaven rounds out my top five. My dad and I watched that twenty years ago and we didn’t know what to think of it. It’s a very personal “like” for me. Most of my present conversations with my 84-year-old father mirror our “left speechless” moment after that film. He’s taught me everything he knows, so most days when I visit him and my mom, it goes, “You want the sports section, Dad? (He nods.) OK, good talk.”

If you could have an hour alone with Malick, what would you most want to know?

KUNA: I think his films should stand on their own, and in some ways, I would not want to receive his personal annotation. Too much film and TV are now litmus-tested as “relevant to the current situation we find ourselves in” … whatever that means. We’ve lost the sense of timeless art for the sake of art, of the Van Goghs who aren’t appreciated in the own time on earth, but nonetheless create art for people yet to be born. Malick is the embodiment of timeless art. So, I wouldn’t need an hour with him, but a mere minute to say, “Thank you.”

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

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