A review of "The Tree of Life," a puzzling, exquisite new film from a master of puzzling, exquisite films: Terrence Malick. A story about the cycle of life, it stars Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain.

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MOVIE REVIEW 3.5 stars

“Tell us a story from before we can remember,” a small boy asks, and somehow the command seems to sum up Terrence Malick’s often puzzling yet always exquisite new film, “The Tree of Life.”

It’s a movie about what we can remember, and about what happened long before we can remember; a cycle of life told through a series of dazzling images. Those looking for a clear-cut story and a snappy pace won’t find them here, or in any of Malick’s dreamy canon (this is his fifth film since his 1973 debut, “Badlands”). But this film’s rewards are many, for those with the patience to simply let it float.

The plot, such as it is, exists on several levels. Brad Pitt and lovely newcomer Jessica Chastain (who SIFF audiences will remember from her 2008 screen debut, Dan Ireland’s “Jolene’) play a young married couple in suburban 1950s Texas, raising their three sons. Bits and pieces of that time of life flit by, seemingly from the memory of eldest son Jack (Sean Penn), now a middle-aged architect looking back on his childhood, seeking meaning. Other images pass by us: cells dividing, waves, clouds, planets, even a strangely graceful dinosaur standing near a river. It’s the beginning of time, the origins of life on Earth, accompanied by a celestially lovely soundtrack (partially composed by Alexandre Desplat, with other pieces — some familiar classic works — by a variety of composers), and it feels deeply spiritual in its solemnity. “That’s where God lives,” says Chastain to the children, pointing to a perfect sky. A final scene, as the characters are reunited under that sun, seems like a glimpse of heaven.

Penn’s scenes are haunting yet brief; he’s given little dialogue, and gives most of his performance — often set in soulless office buildings — through the sadness in his eyes.

The details of the 1950s scenes, in contrast, are often so beautiful they make your heart ache: the relentless green of a tree-lined street; the weightless, clean beauty of a pair of dancing white curtains; a child chasing a soap bubble; a trio of skinny boys in swim trunks; a warm summer day whose perfume we feel we can smell. The camera acts as a member of the family, moving in tandem with them, capturing them in moments both down-to-earth and ethereal. In one scene, the mother pirouettes in the air by a tree; she’s so much a part of that summer light that she’s flying, and all you wish is that she never stop.

Malick, director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki and the cast create a mood that lifts the viewer through the occasional head-scratching moments and into a place of serenity, where answers somehow seem in reach. “The only way to be happy is to love,” says the mother, and that seems as fine a message as any. I left the theater thinking about beauty, and about how certain pieces of music can move us deeply, even though we don’t have the words to explain why. “The Tree of Life” is the same way.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com