''The New World" is something I don't think I've ever seen before on a movie screen: an epic lyrical dialectic. Self-indulgent, gorgeous, maddening, grueling, ultimately transcendent, it's a Terrence Malick movie all the way, and possibly the director's most sustained work since 1972's ''Badlands." A revisionist telling of the Pocahontas story, it also gets its knuckles dirty in the myths that have sustained America since the very first landfall, draining them of romance while measuring a new and clear-eyed sense of national identity. It is a thing of wild beauty.
And many people will hate it. Historians, for one, since ''The New World" paints an impassioned love story that never actually occurred between the 27-year-old Captain John Smith and the 11-year-old Algonquin girl. Malick is working with the stuff of metaphor; he turns Smith into a rough, idealistic dreamboat with the face of Colin Farrell and casts the rangy 15-year-old newcomer Q'orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas (even though that name is never once spoken in the film). The girl is all that America promises to an adventurer -- all the hopes of new beginning and noble savagery -- and Smith never sees her for who she is until too late. That's his tragedy; the movie's point is that it's probably ours as well.
''The New World" is also assuredly not for those who like their epics action-packed and moving with due appointed speed, despite arriving in local theaters in a version 20 minutes tighter than the one that premiered in New York in December. As with ''Days of Heaven" (1978) and ''The Thin Red Line" (1998), Malick has made a sprawling cinematic tone poem that paints the characters' thoughts on the soundtrack in the form of inner pensees. This approach has its pretensions (and then some), but when it works the result is a rapture of a sort the movies always promise and almost never deliver.
You'll know which camp you're in during the long opening scene, a visual crescendo that depicts the arrival of the European ships scored to an intensely beautiful fanfare of horns. The Jamestown colonists are led by Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer), who lands his men, issues a few high-flown bromides about destiny, and skedaddles back to England for reinforcements.
The film proceeds to paint the Europeans' first winter with horrific attention to detail: Outside the fort is a harsh, plentiful wilderness peopled by ''naturals" whose bearing, customs, and language are unfathomable, while inside the gates civilization quickly gives way to madness. As usual, Malick strands any number of gifted actors in small roles -- Noah Taylor, John Savage, David Thewlis all come and go -- as he attends to the big picture of Western idealism wrecked on foreign shores.
Smith is sent upriver to the Algonquin village to trade for food; the voyage ends with a surreal vision of the captain in full armor, fending off attacking warriors while standing knee-deep in a swamp. He's dragged to the longhouse of Powhatan (August Schellenberg) and prepared for slaughter; Pocahontas does her thing; already we're far from
She falls in love with Smith, as adolescent girls do, and he falls in love with the idea of her, as a romantically inclined explorer might do. ''They are gentle, loving, faithful," the explorer says of the Algonquins, ''lacking in all trickery; they have no jealousy, no sense of possession." Startled to discover they're human, he willfully overlooks the more brutal facts of their existence. Malick does not. He indulges himself here; Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography is almost painfully lovely and the voice-overs flow in like waves on a lake. It's such a lovely dream, and, yes, it comes to look fairly silly to an outsider -- to Powhatan, to the other colonists, to the viewers in the audience.
But a dream it is, and the use of Mozart's 23d Piano Concerto on the soundtrack alerts us to the fact that it's a European dream -- John Smith's dream. ''The New World" dives deep into the utopian ideal that has coursed through the veins of this country, from the Puritans through Herman Melville and Walt Whitman all the way to the hippie dream of the 1960s: that noble, ruinous vision of a city on the hill and the reinvention of the self that can be found there. Smith believes that vision and is doomed to chase it forever. Terrence Malick may have believed it once -- he's a child of the '60s, after all -- but he doesn't anymore, as much as he misses its certainty.
Smith returns to Jamestown, which has degenerated into fearsome squalor, and only the arrival of the Algonquins with food keeps the enterprise from collapsing. The first Thanksgiving is thus presented as an act of pity, like strangers doing what they can at the site of a car wreck. In the spring, war breaks out -- the battle is brutal and quick, harder to watch than anything in ''The Thin Red Line" -- and when Captain Newport returns, Smith goes off to search for the Northwest Passage. Pocahontas has by now been kidnapped and brought to live at the fort. Wait two months and tell the girl I'm dead, he instructs his followers.
It's while watching the scene in which they do just that that you may begin to realize what an extraordinary performance Kilcher is giving. She's untrained (insofar as any LA teenager who has dabbled in performance can be called untrained), not conventionally pretty (that long, long jaw would keep her out of all the raucous youth comedies), holding down a hugely ambitious historical drama, and yet the character's emotions seem to float through her face of their own accord. The filter of ''movie acting" isn't yet in place in Kilcher; in performance terms, she may be more of a noble savage than the woman she's playing. She rises to the occasion, though, and in the final reels gives Pocahontas the serene gravity of one who understands she has ascended a world stage.
New colonists have arrived with Newport, and one of them takes an interest in the grieving girl the others regard ''as someone finished." Portrayed by Christian Bale, John Rolfe is everything John Smith is not: steady, cautious, kindhearted, tempered by his own tragedies. If ''The New World" were a 1930s movie, he'd be played by Ralph Bellamy. Malick uses the character, though, to quietly counterbalance Smith, and the relationship the couple cautiously builds is something new, more mature. Where Smith wanted to conquer and be conquered by his newfound land, Rolfe wants to make it work. He doesn't love Pocahontas as an idea. He loves her as a person.
The film's final scenes are terribly moving, both as metaphor and because Malick has achieved a sense of history's weight. Pocahontas, by now converted to Christianity and baptized Rebecca, travels to England and is presented at the court of King James I (a cameo by Jonathan Pryce), along with a small menagerie of native American fauna: a bald eagle, a raccoon despondent in a cage. Dressed in court finery, she gazes at the latter, and possibly wonders at everything she has lost and gained.
By the end of this exhausting, astounding drama of a nation's very first steps, we're wondering too.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.