The other day, fresh off reading 1491, Charles C. Mann’s brilliant meditation on American Indian history, I watched Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005) for the first time in years. I had the flu, which is maybe the best way to watch this feverishly grand re-imagination of American mythology. It goes without saying it’s one of my favorite films, but I was particularly keen on analyzing it as a precursor to The Tree of Life, which I consider the Great American Movie. I believe Malick’s five features (released over a period of 38 years) form a kind of epic story cycle with American history as its subject.

My lingering impression after this viewing was being enchanted all over again with the film’s interpretation of the character of Pocahontas. The Powhatan “princess” as written by Malick and played by the stunning Q’orianka Kilcher (a force of nature in her feature debut at age 14) is a beautifully realized vision, a delicate combination of ethereal spirit child and mythological earth mother, incorporating innocence and wisdom, strength and vulnerability, effervescent joy and tragedy in shifting layers as complex as the film’s hyperkinetic editing.

The movement of her body, the way she makes all of her interactions into capricious play or interpretive dance, display a level of unselfconscious freedom and grace that few in our society attain; while her manner of constantly talking to Spirit via the monologues laid over the film’s montage-like narrative indicates profound, prayerful reverence and gratitude. She seems to dwell comfortably in the space between earth and sky, just as she dwells on the chaotic and dangerous boundary between English and American culture, beholden to both, but contained by neither. On this viewing, the significance of these monologues jumped out at me; it now seems obvious that they’re precursors of, or even part of a continuum with the conversations with God that are such an important part of The Tree of Life.

To me it’s not merely a fascinating performance; there’s something instructive about her character and the virtues it represents that distills Malick’s holistic views of philosophy and spirituality. Pocahontas represents a tragically lost possibility, a peaceful blending of cultures that might have changed the course of world history. But on a simpler level, she just shows us a better way of being. Put it this way – if you’re not making this gesture from time to time, you’re probably not living right:

Here’s a collection of some great writing about this masterpiece:

Terrence Malick’s New World, an in-depth analysis of the film’s philosophical and cinematic language by Richard Neer of the Universty of Chicago at nonsite.org

Best of the Decade #2: The Myth Maker, an appreciation by Jeff Reichert at Reverse Shot

Also at Reverse Shot: A Stitch in Time, by Chris Wisniewski, analyzes the unorthodox editing in both The New World and Malick’s Days of Heaven (1979)

Beautiful Stills from Beautiful Films is where I found most of these images