The Tree of Life & The Agnus Dei

Here is one of the last great scenes, perhaps the climax, of Terrence Malick’s magisterial film THE TREE OF LIFE (2011). .

The music in this scene is from Hector Berlioz’s the Grande Messe des morts, Op. 5 (or Requiem), part 10, the Agnus Dei.

The scene is full of symbolism and not easy to grasp. Throughout the film there are many indications that the spirituality in the film is fundamentally Christian. Some might want to say that it’s natural for the spirituality to be Christian given the American context, but I think it is more. I think Malick is exploring the connections between God as creator, the creation He made, human beings receiving God through His creation and others, the suffering of human beings in light of God’s love, the death of Christ, and much more.  And I believe Malick is a Christian, though he is a very private man and it’s hard to say for sure. But the music gives us a clue.

The traditional words of the Agnus Dei, in both liturgy and music, are based upon John the Baptist’s reference in John 1:29 to Jesus (“Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world”), the text in Latin is:

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

which means:

Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

In Berlioz’s the Grande Messe des morts, the words are as follows in Latin:

Agus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,
dona eis requiem sempiternam.
Te decet huymnus, Deus, in Sion,
et tibit reddetur votum in Jerusalem.
Exaudi orationem meam, ad te omnis
caro veniet.
Requiem aeternam
dona defunctis, Domine, et lux
perpetua luceat eis, cum sanctis tuis
in aeternam, Domine, quia pius es.
Amen.

which means:

Lamb of God, who takest away the sins
of the world, grant them everlasting rest.
Thou, O God, art praised in Sion
and unto Thee shall the vow be
performed in Jerusalem. Hear my
prayer, unto Thee shall all flesh come.
Grant the dead eternal rest,
O Lord, and may perpetual light shine
on them, with Thy saints for ever,
Lord, because Thou art merciful.
Amen.

And while the last “amens” are being sung, the mother says: “I give him to you, I give you my son.”

Which is followed by a shot of a field of sunflowers, heliotropes that not only turn towards the sun for their life, but are images of the sun as well.

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Filed under Christianity, movies, music

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