US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Watch: To the Wonder

By John Christman | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

Directed by Terrence Malick (Redbud Pictures, 2013)

Over the course of 40 years auteur filmmaker Terrence Malick has made just five feature films. Yet these films have been of such a unique and compelling quality that he has become one of the great filmmakers of our times. He has taken on weighty subjects in a characteristically meditative style in films as divergent as the award winning World War II drama The Thin Red Line to the ponderous Tree of Life. Now, to this impressive oeuvre, Malick adds a love story, To the Wonder.

To characterize any of Malick’s films as having a singular subject is admittedly a disservice. His films are expansive in thought and in image. They demand the full attention of the viewer as they poetically meander through questions both philosophical and religious. Thus love absorbs To the Wonder, but it is a love at once overwhelming and fleeting, human and divine.

To the Wonder drifts along languorously with the story of two lovers, Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko). Their lives at times powerfully intersect with others, such as the heartbroken Jane (Rachel McAdams) and the melancholy Father Quintana (Javier Bardem). We hear their thoughts, often louder than we hear their conversations. We follow their turbulent journey, from the arches of Mont Saint-Michel to the windswept plains of Oklahoma, all captured by the brilliant cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki. The music of Wagner and Bach break in and out as the camera glides past Mariana and Neil’s glances and outstretched hands. Their stories almost unfold like memories or reminiscences. The overwhelming mood is that of an intense interiority.

But this love that is inside the characters of the film is continuously struggling to reach out. We see this through Marina’s hands, so often outstretched to Neil and to the sky. We also see this in Father Quintana whose hands are frequently outstretched to comfort the poor, the suffering and the imprisoned. Love in this film seems to be related strongly to the experience of presence and of distance. Marina suffers Neil’s emotional distance but continues to reach out for him. Father Quintana suffers God’s distance but continues to reach out to help people who suffer their own estrangements and absences. Love’s presence drifts while they try to hold on.

To be sure To the Wonder leaves one with no easy answers. However, its mystery and beauty compelled me to watch it twice. After the first viewing I felt that moments of inspiration and joy were overpowered by a sense of sadness and loss. However, after a second viewing, another narrative unfolded, and at its heart I was surprised to catch a glimpse of an unexpected moment of wonder. The end we see may depend as much upon ourselves as upon Malick.