Terrence Malick TIFF Toronto

Terrence Malick arrives at the TIFF Bell Lightbox

Presented by the TIFF Cinematheque, New Worlds: The Films of Terrence Malick is a comprehensive celebration of one of America's most widely revered auteurs. The program is scheduled to coincide with the release of Malick's richly acclaimed The Tree of Life, and its retrospective portion runs June 4 through 19, while his Palm d'Or-winning magnum opus debuts at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on June 17. For acolytes of the cult of Malick, New Worlds represents a rare opportunity to savor his signature vistas in their original format, while, for would-be initiates, it's a chance to become acquainted with the entire filmography of a living legend. Of course, it helps that his 38-year career has yielded just five films, but as he tends to produce incomparably beautiful, deeply meditative masterworks, few begrudge him for taking his time.

BADLANDS (June 4, 5pm; June 7, 9pm; June 14, 9:30pm)

Malick's 1973 feature debut is his most accessible film, in that it's a structurally conventional crime drama, and merely hints at the abstract lyricism of his latter efforts. A sensational Martin Sheen is Kit Carruthers, a dimwitted but vaguely charming sociopath, based loosely on Midwestern spree killer Charles Starkweather. Sissy Spacek plays the shyly introspective Holly Sargis, inspired by Starkweather's teenage girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate. After Kit kills her father, Holly is swept along in his murderous flight from justice, which spans small-town South Dakota to the majestic foothills of Montana. All the while, Spacek wonders dreamily at her unlikely circumstance, her voiceover a mixture of romantic banalities and the more contemplative existential queries that have become Malick's stock-in-trade. She wonders, too, at the natural beauty of her surroundings - another ever-present element of Malick's canon, and perhaps the most richly admired.

DAYS OF HEAVEN (June 4, 7:30pm; June 11, 5pm; June 15, 9pm)

1978's Days of Heaven shares broad narrative similarities with its precursor, but the shift from Badlands in tone and technique is probably Malick's greatest departure. This time, it's the strapping Richard Gere (as Bill) and fetching Brooke Adams (as Abby) who are lovers on the run, lying low as transient harvesters on a wheat farm in the Texas Panhandle. With them is Bill's younger sister, Linda (Linda Manz, also our narrator), while Bill and Abby themselves pretend to be siblings to avoid arousing suspicion. The wealthy but ailing farmer (Sam Shepard) quickly warms to Abby, and Bill urges her to reciprocate, with a view to inheriting the farmer's fortune. It's a premise with all the makings of passionate melodrama, but Malick chiefly mines it for serene rumination, foregrounding the mechanical rhythms of the early 1900s harvest, and shooting against an Oscar-winning backdrop of perpetual magic hour.

THE THIN RED LINE (June 5, 3:30pm; June 8, 6:30pm; June 13, 3:30pm)

Following a 20-year hiatus, Malick returned to filmmaking in 1998 via an astoundingly ambitious adaptation of James Jones' World War II novel, The Thin Red Line. That year also saw the release of Spielberg's famously visceral Saving Private Ryan, and Malick's transcendental tone poem struggled at the North American box office, despite wide critical acclaim, spectacular big-budget staging, and a stellar ensemble cast (including Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, John Cusack, Jim Caviezel, George Clooney, Nick Nolte, Elias Koteas, and many more). New Worlds invites audiences to experience the director's visionary depiction of the battle for Guadalcanal in the immediate context of his larger body of work. Inasmuch as its meandering plot and grandly philosophical narration defy comparison with conventional war films, these features are entirely of a piece with his resplendently existential cinema, post Badlands.

THE NEW WORLD (June 5, 7:30pm; June 12, 7:30pm)

Hailed as one of the decade's best films in a global TIFF Cinematheque poll (and by several prominent publications worldwide), 2005's The New World is a lush and lavishly epic retelling of the Jamestown Expedition's 1607 arrival in Virginia. Colin Farrell plays the fabled Captain John Smith, who leads a trade expedition into Powhatan territory, hoping to secure supplies for the fledgling colony. Instead, as the familiar story goes, he's captured and nearly killed, but is ultimately spared by Powhatan's daughter, the mythical Pocahontas (newcomer Q'orianka Kilcher). Never have Malick's ethereal musings enjoyed so apt a conduit as the enchanting Kilcher, nor his unique regard for nature's marvels so effectively conveyed the wonderment of his characters - the smitten Smith, in particular. Also starring Christian Bale as John Rolfe, Pocahontas' tenderhearted suitor,The New World is Malick's most romantic film, and my most cherished of his works.

THE TREE OF LIFE (Daily screenings, June 17 - 30)

The purest distillation of Malick's directorial ethos to date, The Tree of Life elevates his thematic and stylistic conventions to new heights of elliptical abstraction, and in many ways dwarfs even the ambition of The Thin Red Line. Encompassing no less than the origin of the universe and emergence of prehistoric life on earth, and juxtaposing those momentous notions against the most intimate, minutely observed memories of small-town, mid-century childhood, it is simultaneously his most expansive and most deeply personal film. It's an unabashed art house blockbuster, concerned with the inscrutability of God's Will, and with the spiritual struggle between nature and grace, personified by the unnamed paternal and maternal archetypes of Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, respectively. Hunter McCracken plays Jack, whose fragmented experiences of sibling rivalry, motherly inspiration, and fatherly admonishment give rise to a tapestry of profoundly affecting recollections, which resound well into his adult life (as portrayed by Sean Penn). It's an at times bewildering film, alternately for its narrative opacity, and near overpowering beauty.

All screenings at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Tickets are available online, by phone: 416-599-TIFF, or in person: TIFF Bell Lightbox, Reitman Square, 350 King Street West.

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