How Film Can Carry Being: Film Melodrama and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life



film melodrama, Friedrich Schleiermacher, post-religious film, Terrence Malick


This paper argues that Terrence Malick’s film The Tree of Life (2011) can be read as a post-religious film that offers its audience an experience of the “beyond” of the non-cinematic real. In order to make this argument, the paper employs Schleiermacher’s concept of religious experience as the beyond of human existence, experienced in moments of openness to the infinite-divine otherwise blocked in the natural state of finite human being. In western culture, cinematic experience is enclosed within the apparatus of melodrama, serving a quasi-religious function by offering audiences an amelioration of human existence in a world from which God has withdrawn. Hollywood melodrama subjectifies the audiences’ belief in the moral good within the mythic presentation of a world defined by ideals of historical progress linked to the power of industrialised capitalism and the nation state. The cinematic real is simply this reality presented as an experience of an ameliorated state of being unfolding in the film melodrama itself. Terrence Malick’s film The Tree of Life breaks with the apparatus of melodrama, and opens into the non-cinematic-real — the nothing of the cinematic world opened up by the film breaching its own framework. My reading will show how The Tree of Life presents human life as an evolved way of being blocked in a masculinised mode in midtwentieth century America. The film releases this blocked way of being through the unwilling of the will of masculinised power, shown in visions of nature as the “beyond” of the cinematic real. These visions of nature, appearing through cracks in the film frame, enable the feminine way of being, otherwise blocked by the masculine will to power, to lead the way into the beyond of the non-cinematic real.




How to Cite

Mules, W. (2013). How Film Can Carry Being: Film Melodrama and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Cinema: Journal of Philosophy and the Moving Image, (4), 133–163. Retrieved from