The best novels and films dramatize key problems of their generation. This is the case with To Kill a Mockingbird, the 1960 novel by Harper Lee. The themes of racial justice and strong, loving fathers were so powerful that it won a Pulitzer Prize. A couple of years later it was magnificently adapted for cinema. Gregory Peck played such a convincing Atticus that he won an Oscar.

Fifty years later, American still respond to films about racial justice, as the critical acclaim for last year’s film The Help attests. However, today it is the decline of fatherhood in the sexual revolution which touches us most deeply nowadays. Terrence Malick’s recent film The Tree of Life is an elegy for  a generation which has lost a deep sense of paternity.

Let’s look first at To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee wrote only one novel and then retired from public view for the rest of her life. But her one creation is priceless.

Some time in the 1930s, Atticus Finch, a widowed lawyer and father of two young children, agrees to defend a young black man accused of raping a white woman in the racially divided town of Maycomb, Alabama. Townspeople try to convince Atticus to decline the case, but he is adamant.

Atticus does not fit into today’s template for an engaged and loving dad. His mischievous and lively six-year-old daughter, Scout, who narrates the story, complains that he is boring and detached. “Atticus Finch didn’t do anything that could possibly arouse admiration in anyone… he never went hunting, he didn’t play poker, or fish, or drink, or smoke. He sat in the living room and read.”

Atticus does not interfere with his children’s games nor does he lecture them. He intervenes only when necessary. He seems oblivious to their chatter and games as he reads the newspaper every night after dinner. But his occasional remarks and his example instruct them in how to live an upright life and give them security and the certainty of being loved.

As his two children play and attend the local school, he helps them to understand the world of adults. Beyond the peaceful, sleepy routines of daily life of their rural town they begin to glimpse the discrimination, injustice and hatred on which it is built. This is the role of a father in the integral formation of personal identity.

Scout, tired of her schoolmates’ mockery of her dad’s decision to “get into trouble, asks him to relent and not defend the “negro”. Atticus Finch calmly responds, “I don’t want to make an enemy of anyone, Scout, but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself”. Here’s a teaching about the dignity of conscience that touches the seven-year-old deeply. Though he fails to save the innocent Tom Robinson, Atticus awakens the dormant consciences of his fellow citizens. Moreover, he sows the seed of a new way of seeing life in his two children, particularly in Scout.

The novel is written in the 1960s, but takes place in the 1930s. Back then, there were, as there always have been, dishonourable fathers. The villain of the novel is the town drunk, Bob Ewell. He falsely claims that his slatternly daughter had been beaten and raped by a black man to cover up the fact that he had beaten her himself. He offers a good example of the pathology of fatherhood. What the film does not question, however, is the ideal of fatherhood.

In 2012, the social and cultural landscape has changed. It is not necessary to explain it in detail: 50 percent divorce rates, single mothers, surrogate mothers, homosexual fathers who commission test-tube babies… The variants continue to multiply. The various predicaments that follow are described quite well by Elizabeth Marquardt in One Parent or Five? A Global Look at the Today’s New Intentional Families.

The dominant figures of 20th century culture, Nietzsche, Freud and Marx, all had fraught relationships with their own father. These attitudes may have been reflected in their  works, which placed God under suspicion as a merciless tyrant. They killed God, and as a consequence, killed fatherhood. Perhaps that is why Terrence Malick has made a movie film about the fatherhood of God, who is the origin of all fatherhood.  

Malick is an arthouse director. He has won numerous film awards, including the Golden Palm at the Cannes’ 2011 Film Festival, and was nominated for Oscars for The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life. But The Tree of Life is not a crowd-pleaser. Many were fascinated by its visual poetry and the beauty of the music; others were deceived or didn’t understand it. I recommend watching it at least twice to really appreciate it.

Here is what happens. In 1950s Texas, Jack (Hunter McCracken) lives with his parents and siblings. While his mother, Mrs O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) incarnates love and tenderness, his father (Brad Pitt) is stern and distant. He believes that severity is needed to teach Jack how to survive in a hostile world. The grown-up Jack (Sean Penn) recalls the transcendental moments of his childhood and tries to understand what influence they had on him and to what point they have determined his life.

It is a very simple canvas, but Spanish critic Alberto Fijo says: “Very few times has cinema spoken of God, of fatherhood, of motherhood, of filiation, of fraternity, of marriage, of freedom, of sin, of grace, of freedom, and of the mystery of pain, with the suggestive capacity of this film, which is clearly much more than an abstract and disinterested reflection and incorporates a lot of personal experience.”

Much of the film’s meaning is clarified by verses from the book of Job which open the film: 

Where were you when I put the earth on its base?
Say, if you have knowledge.
By whom were its measures fixed? Say, if you have wisdom;
or by whom was the line stretched out over it?  
On what were its pillars based, or who put down its angle-stone,
When the morning stars made songs together,
and all the sons of the gods gave cries of joy?

Male voices in the background recite, “mother… father… brother…”. This culminates with a woman’s voice articulating the two coordinates of the film: “There are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace.”  The same voice warns us, “you have to choose which one you’ll follow.” And the voice explains that the way of grace does not fear pain nor flee from sacrifice, while the way of nature tends toward self-gratification and self-affirmation over the others. Fortunately, we have been given the possibility to return at any moment — even at the last tick of the clock — to the way of grace.

Around 1960 Mrs O’Brien faces these dilemmas, highlighted by the overwhelming challenge of suffering. She cries out to God with heartbreaking sincerity because she feels incapable of overcoming her despair over the death of the youngest of her three children. “He is now in God’s hands,” says her husband to console her. “But hasn’t he always been in God’s hands?” she responds with astonishing lucidity. 

A similar anguish torments Jack, a successful executive who feels empty and longs to reconnect with his roots and with God. To do this, he remembers, with God, his childhood and youth, brightened by happy escapades with his siblings and overshadowed by his progressive distancing from his father — a  man of integrity who is pious and kind but authoritarian.

The movie is a constant dialogue of its characters with God, voiced-over images of creation, flashbacks of life’s memories, and light, a light that infuses everything, together with an excellent musical selection and soundtrack. It is as if the characters were dancing to a visual symphony.

The closing sequences shed a bit more light on Malick’s intentions. As Jack rides an elevator down, he has a vision of himself walking on rocky terrain and passing through a wooden door to meet his family and all the others who live in his memory. In the closing moments of the film, Mrs O’Brien looks to the sky and whispers, “I give him to you. I give you my son.”

The God of The Tree of Life goes well beyond the God of the book of Job: he is not just a Creator, he is a magnanimous and providing Father who holds all of our loves, our sorrows, our relationships, and every moment of our lives, in his hands.

A film this powerful was necessary to artistically reclaim the origin of fatherhood, which we have lost.

Norberto González Gaitano teaches media studies in Rome. He also runs the Family and Media website which examines how the family is presented in the media and how family associations can communicate effectively. 

Norberto González Gaitano is Professor of Public Opinion at the School of Church Communications of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross (Rome) and the author of Public Opinion and the...