Although he has directed a mere five features in almost 40 years, Terrence Malick has always been a divisive film-maker. Some critics and moviegoers find his movies detached, overly symbolic and oblique; others regard Malick as a genuine auteur – a director whose miserly output is frustrating, given the beauty and power of films such as Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005). (In the interests of full and frank disclosure, it should be pointed out that this column stands firmly in the Malick-as-Auteur camp.)

None of these standpoints will be altered by the Texan film-maker's latest offering, The Tree of Life. Indeed, if ever a director's career can be said to be defined by one screening, that director is Terrence Malick and that screening took place at this year's Cannes Film Festival where the movie was roundly booed yet would go on to claim the coveted Palme d'Or.

The Tree of Life is not a movie that lends itself to easy summary but Brad Pitt put it as well as any when he declared at Cannes that the film ''tells this micro story of this family in a small town in Texas and juxtaposes it with the macro of the birth of the cosmos''.

The opening passage of the film offers a visual portrait of this smalltown family, the O'Briens, that juxtaposes nostalgia and grief. The nostalgia is represented by fragments of gorgeous, Norman Rockwell-like images of their three sons going about their play without a care in the world. Nobody captures nature on film like Malick so we are treated to a parade of dazzling images of sunflowers, waterfalls, butterflies, etc.

The grief, meanwhile, arrives with news of the death of the second son. Malick then fast-forwards to the present day where the eldest son, Jack (Sean Penn), is now an architect leading a soul-less existence in a high-rise office block where he rattles around a cage of steel and glass; and a spacious but antiseptic home where he and his wife, played by Joanna Going, also move about in different orbits.

Reflecting on his Texan childhood, Jack hears his mother outlining the two possible paths through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. His father, played by Pitt, embodies the way of the former. A buzz-cutted, buttoned-up patriarch, he offers tough love to his sons, particularly Jack, and expects obedience and discipline in return. ''You make yourself what you are,'' he tells them. ''You have control of your own destiny.'' The way of grace is embodied through the boys' mother (Jessica Chastain), a beatific presence who does her best to protect her sons from their father's wrath while exhorting them to ''Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light.''

Thus far the story has unfolded through Jack's eyes, whether as resentful youngster (an eye-catching debut from newcomer Hunter McCracken) or disillusioned adult. At this point in the film, however, Malick eschews narrative conventions and uses the family bereavement as a springboard to reflect on such lofty themes as the creation of the cosmos, the development of life on Earth and the hereafter. This visually stunning passage (including Big Bangs, DNA and dinosaurs) was created by a team of five editors, led by award-winning special effects whiz Douglas Trumbull (2001 – A Space Odyssey, etc). Trumbull's involvement is apposite since The Tree of Life has many nods to Kubrick, and indeed a few to the great British director Terence Davies, another expert at recalling childhood grief and glory through the prism of fragments of visual and aural memories.

On the acting front, Pitt does a splendid job in the role of the stern paterfamilias, while newcomer Chastain offers that same pre-Raphaelite presence that a young Sissy Spacek brought to Malick's debut feature Badlands (interestingly, Spacek is married to Malick's regular Production Designer Jack Fisk). Best of all, though, are the three young boys – Hunter McCracken, Laramie Weppler, Ty Sheridan – all of whom deliver remarkable, uninhibited performances that add a genuine layer of authenticity to Malick's story. While the ambition of Malick's work will be lost on some audiences, nobody can doubt his visual mastery: whether capturing the rural life of South Dakota (Badlands), the swaying grasses of Guadalcanal (The Thin Red Line), or the swooping starlings of this film.

The Tree of Life is nothing less than a masterly tone poem in which Malick and his acclaimed cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have created a heart-rending paean to the lost Eden of one's youth.

Michael Doherty