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All eyes to turn to Malick in Cannes

Charles Ealy

This year's Cannes Film Festival, which begins Wednesday, promises to be one of the best in decades, with some of the biggest names in world cinema competing for the top prize, the Palme d'Or.

Among the contenders are Denmark's enfant terrible Lars von Trier, Spain's Pedro Almodóvar, Italy's Nanni Moretti, Finland's Aki Kaurismäki and the Dardenne brothers of Belgium.

But no one has been getting more prefestival attention than Austin director Terrence Malick, who will screen the long-awaited "The Tree of Life," much of which was filmed in Smithville in 2008. The movie — starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and Sean Penn — is scheduled to open in major U.S. cities on Memorial Day weekend and debut in Austin the following Friday, June 3.

Why all the buzz?

Malick, who lives in the Westlake area, ranks as one of cinema's biggest mysteries, rarely appearing in public and steadfastly refusing critics' requests for interviews. It's not even known whether he will show up for the traditional press conference after his movie screens in Cannes on May 16.

A recent email inquiry to a Texas publicist for Fox Searchlight, which will be distributing the movie, brought the following response: "Terrence Malick is not confirmed for the press conference." That response leaves open the possibility that he might be "confirmed for the press conference" at a later date, but it's probably unlikely.

Malick has been super-secretive about the plot of "The Tree of Life," which is only his fifth movie since 1973's "Badlands."

Representatives speak only in broad terms, saying that "Tree" deals with a boy who is torn between his mother (Jessica Chastain), who represents love and grace, and his father (Brad Pitt), who represents self-interest and pragmatism.

As the boy grows up, he begins to see the world's beauty in more tempered terms as he deals with deaths and other disappointments and tries to balance the dueling perspectives of his parents.

Sean Penn plays the grown-up man, who is described as "a lost soul in the modern world," in search of life's meaning.

But Malick is expected to contextualize the man's anxiety by slowly making him aware of "the eternal scheme of which we are part." That contextualization, full of cosmic connections, explains the beautiful, naturalistic images of the world's evolution that have populated Internet discussions of "The Tree of Life."

From all appearances, the movie promises to be the most philosophical Malick effort yet.

And philosophy has long played a huge role in his movies, in part because of his educational background. He earned a degree in philosophy from Harvard in 1965, with a thesis on Martin Heidegger under the direction of Stanley Cavell, a highly influential writer about cinema and philosophy.

Malick then went to Oxford University to study philosophy on a Rhodes Scholarship, but he didn't complete his studies, apparently because of disagreements with an academic supervisor.

Back in the United States, he translated Heidegger's essay "The Essence of Reasons" and published it in 1969, before enrolling in the American Film Institute.

Heidegger's philosophical influence plays a role in Malick's movies partly through the intellectual concept of authentic or inauthentic Dasein. There's no easy way to describe the term without oversimplifying, and there's a reason you rarely see discussions of Heidegger in general-interest publications. After all, most of us aren't accustomed to discussing the notion of Being , which Heidegger sees as our capacity to make sense of the world. A book-length treatise, much less a newspaper feature, might not do justice to the complexities of Heidegger's thought.

But Heidegger and Malick suggest, in part, that humans can reach or exceed their potential only by taking care of other beings and approaching life contextually, as part of an overall existence. Central to the notion of authentic Dasein is having a conscience that can keep you from falling prey to all the temporal temptations — thinking you can exploit the world and take what you need or want.

At the same time, Malick seems to find wry amusement in making nature look indifferent to all our personal travails.

Malick routinely places his characters in a natural world and follows their progressions, or lack thereof, through the landscapes.

In "Badlands," Malick loosely bases the character of Kit (Martin Sheen) on Charles Starkweather, who went on a killing spree with his girlfriend in the 1950s.

Malick makes no obvious, moral judgments about Kit. He merely follows the character as he spirals out of control, as if he doesn't fit in the world and thinks that violence might be the answer. He feels no connection with most of the people around him. He's a man without context, except for the teenage girlfriend Holly (Sissy Spacek), whom he takes along for the murderous ride.

Similar ideas play out in the beautifully photographed "Days of Heaven," when transient agricultural worker Bill (Richard Gere) persuades his lover, Abby (Brooke Adams), to marry a rich, dying farmer so that they can lay claim to his fortune.

Bill sees the world as something to be exploited, and he sees others as tools for that exploitation. In the process, he subverts his love for Abby and poisons the natural world with his greed.

This conflict between humans and nature — and sometimes the inability of humans to understand their connectedness with the world — plays out yet again in the 1998 drama "The Thin Red Line," set on the island of Guadalcanal during World War II.

David Sterritt, chairman of the National Society of Film Critics, notes that, in some respects, "Malick is a dualist and a skeptic, wondering if forces of creation and destruction are forever battling each other in the world — if we humans are subject to 'not one power but two,' as 'The Thin Red Line' character Witt phrases it."

In an essay for the International Federation of Film Critics magazine Undercurrent, Sterritt sees the same ideas in 2005's "The New World," which tracks the conflict between an Eden-like world of Native Americans with the civilized but exploitative culture of the Europeans during the 17th century.

In all of Malick's films, nature assumes the importance of a character, and it is usually photographed in lingering close-ups, as if universal truths will continue despite the foolhardiness of humans.

It's almost as if Malick sees us living in the past, present and timelessness of nature, even though some of us might not realize it. Those who are able to at least understand the notions of selfless love have a chance to find a spiritual calm.

All these ideas are expected to come together in "The Tree of Life," which focuses on a boy in the 1950s but includes images of the birth of the cosmos.

And when the movie premieres in mid-May, it might not ultimately matter whether Malick shows up to talk to the press. He expects the movie to speak for itself.

cealy@statesman.com; 445-3931