To the Wonder: vade retro

[It is useless to read the following before my review of The Tree of LifeThe Imaginary Family of Terrence Malick.]

Any attempt to consider Malick’s experiments will deal with ennui. All comes from there. No big deal. Ennui is the omnipresent demon of modernity.
Quintana is a curious presence in Malick’s city. What is precisely the nature of his malaise? It is a mix of sadness, loss (“no tengo ninguna experiencia de ti, no como una vez la tuve”; “I have no experience of you. Not as I once did.”), anguish, something more. One of the parishioners tells him “I’m going to pray for you, so you receive the gift of joy.”
Considering the context, acedia might be important to have in mind. Aquinas saw it as the refusal of the joy (gaudium) which has its source in divine love. In the end, the priest seems to find what he has lost with his parish, the body of Christ. The answer is to search in charitas that love that loves us.
The name of the priest’s character, Susana’s, told us that he came from Buñuel. Quintana is a priest because of Nazarín, a film alluded by The Tree of Life’s Ecce Homo stained glass: in me, beneath me, above me, on my right, on my left. If Nazarín was trying to help humanity, Quintana assists and consoles Malick’s parish. The film is alluded both by Marina’s exercises (above) and her attempt to playfully bite Neil in the mouth.

Marina like a tempting devilish Buñuel-girl.
One person visited by the priest is particularly important. It is the aged woman with the toad tattooed in her arm. She is very provocative towards Quintana, throwing his book to the ground and later going to his house. The allusion is evident: Simon of the Desert tempted by the devil.

The city continues to be the inner community of the director. Everything is nature: not a character or presence in this film escapes the allusionistic spiral. This includes all the roles played by amateurs, even when they seem to be playing just who they are. Sometimes the director might search for something and sometimes he might just find something which he can use.

What is this bizarre film, Simon of the Desert? The answers are infinite. Consider it as a work about boredom. From this perspective, that sudden transition from the column to the skyscrapers (an abstract city, like in the contemporary scenes of The Tree of Life) is much less absurd or arbitrary than some might think.

It is a terrible cliché to reduce the Italian master to such a label, but as we talk about ennui it should be remembered that allusions to Antonioni started in Badlands. I suspect of a partial allusion to Beyond the Clouds in these shots. 

Invert the film. If it would begin with contemporary boredom, why would we go back to the desert of the ascetics? Because, historically, that was the place of the crime. The oldest ancestor of what we can name boredom or ennui (as a concept) is usually identified in the sin of acedia, the “demon of noontide” (Psalm 91), first defined by Desert Fathers (who started to list the deadly sins). Acedia (from ἀκηδία, “non-caring state”) covered a realm of psychological states and behaviors developed by ascetics: listlessness, laziness, apathy, ceaseless wandering, physical and spiritual. This flight from the world led to incapability to perform one’s duties, extreme sorrow and, ultimately, suicidal despair.

The flesh breaking the realm of the spirit: the entrance of the Devil in the film happens in a moment of evasion and phantasy about a woman. Simon wonders, dreams about his mother, imagines himself playing with her and resting in her lap.

Maybe it would not be too wrong to say that in Simon – one of the most extraordinary films – we travel the scenario of acedia to ennui. From the beginning to the “final ball”. The end of history: the secular, capitalist, democratic, sexually liberated world synthesized by the frenzy claustrophobic atmosphere of the 60s disco. A world where apparently there is nothing else to do except to join the final dance or to die of boredom. Vade retro, says Simon. But someone took his place, and there is no coming back, answers the Devil. We can’t go home again.

Painting left us an extraordinary heritage of diabolical temptations through depictions of the life of Saint Anthony. It is their volcanic reality that feeds this director’s inner life.

The mythical world of Simon was the world of inner experience, of full deliverance to God. A world from where the Other is excluded is left with the same, with meaningless, endless, infernal repetition. For those unable to retain or regain a parcel of Simon’s faith, what is left? For Malick it is the parodic (pseudo-Bataillian) go back to the column where he hopes to find not God but the Devil – or Evil.

Voyage to the Beginning of the World (1997): Marcello Mastroianni as an alter-ego of the director and Leonor Silveira (his muse) dressed to evoke the devil of Simon.

To some extent we could say the same of Buñuel himself. I wonder if he was not Simon’s substitute in that column… The apparition of his Devil, tan inocente, always reminds me of that Jennie portrayed in one of his favorite films. The Devil as the muse? “Sex without religion is like cooking an egg without salt. Sin gives more chances to desire.” Change sex for eroticism, take it as the realm of art and... voilà!


“I am, have been, and will be only one thing – an American.” (Citizen Kane)

“Proud of my freedom. Or of my enslavement, Mother.” (“Orgulloso de mi libertad… O de mi esclavitud, Madre.”, Simon of the Desert)

“Recognizing two of her own, the Statue of Liberty gave us a friendly wave” (« Reconnaissant deux des siens, la Statue de la Liberté nous adressa un salut fraternel », Pierrot le fou).

From Badlands, Malick’s relation with American mythology is much the same he establishes with religion: something between parody and deliverance, executioner and victim. That is the play. With rare intuition he depicted himself as the crucified James Dean. An unifying image of these two realms: America (its myth factory, Hollywood) and the Cross/religion/sacrifice. Hollywood as the Holy Wood – or The Tree of Life. As for me, in this last film, it is easier to see a grotesque exaltation of the world of the disco than any little openness to whatever “sacred.” Malick: if you get to the conclusion that, despite of all, you are as bored as ever, I can’t tell you more than the Devil: “Ni "vade", ni "retro", ni nada.”

To be continued?