A Sacred Wonder

I’m currently working on an article on images of trauma in film for the independent film journal, Cinemascope. The call for papers included a quote from French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, who argues that film is “always sacred and never religious” because the sacred is “elusive and indefinable, faraway from reality.” This strikes me as a fair assessment of the art of film, and it begins to scratch at the surface of the greatness of Terrence Malick, one of the premier directors in the medium. His latest film, To the Wonder, is the second of a planned trilogy which includes 2011’s Tree of Life and the yet-to-be-released, Knight of Cups.

I greatly appreciated Tree of Life, and you can read mine and Richard’s thoughts on it here. However, I think I was more captivated by To the Wonder. It’s both tempting and frustrating to try to outline all of the themes running through Malick’s latest film, but it will suffice here to say that love both found and lost, grace, hope, and relationships are at the forefront. But to say that it is about these themes is to give the film short shrift because it seems to me that it is Malick’s attempt to visualize them, to have them take life and die before our very eyes rather than having characters rhapsodize or talk about them to one another (and us) as if we had never experienced them ourselves. The characters do talk about these things, but not in any sustained way.

Neil and Jane quickly develop intense feelings that fade just as fast.

To the Wonder will no doubt cause much frustration even among those excited to see it. It is virtually a silent film. The actors rarely ever speak but whisper. It demands re-watching to make sure, but I don’t think two characters in the same shot ever exchanged lines of dialogue with one another. I think there’s something to this stylistic choice that demands further analysis. Of course, films have never been absolutely silent, even when we called them “silents.” Malick’s film isn’t either, and it benefits from stirring classical orchestral works that, along with the mesmerizing cinematography, provide a rapturous viewing experience. In his review of the film, Craig Detweiler refers to the buffalo scene with Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams as one of the most wondrous in cinema history. I would extend that praise to the entire sequence involving these two actors as a cinematic composition of unparalleled beauty and intrigue.

I realize that I’ve gone on a bout the film without reference to what actually happens in it. This, I think, is both important and not. The themes are portrayed through the interactions of the characters but transcend them as well. As we struggle to understand what transpires between the characters, they also try desperately to understand one another and the emotions they are (or are not) feeling. Essentially, Ben Affleck’s character, Neil, falls in love with Olga Kurylenko‘s character, Marina, in Paris but out of love with her after they move to Oklahoma. Marina returns to France because of an expired VISA, a turn of events that barely registers with the emotionally distant Neil. While Marina is away and the two are apparently separated, Neil falls in love with Jane (McAdams), an Oklahoman cowgirl who inherited a struggling ranch. Somehow, Marina works her way back into Neil’s life, and Neil tells Jane about his past relationship, which effectively ends this new one. Neil and Marina try to give it another go, but Marina ends up leaving again because Neil is never really present to her. There’s also a priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) in the same small town who struggles to live out his half of a relationship with God.

Malick’s visualization of the disconnect between the characters is frequently stunning.

It’s so much more than this, but To the Wonder might be one of the best movies about relationships ever made, especially if we hold in tension (as I believe Malick intends us to do) the “earthly” relationship between Neil and Marina or Jane and the “spiritual” relationship between Father Quintana and God. This might be one of the most compelling portrayals of a minister since Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951). Roger Ebert wrote about Father Quintana in his very last film review: “Bardem, as a priest far from home, made me realize as never before the loneliness of the unmarried clergy. Wandering in his empty church in the middle of the day, he is a forlorn figure, crying out in prayer and need to commune with his Jesus.” This relationship says so much about devotion, commitment, and sticking it out, even as Father Quintana is eventually relocated to another parish. In the midst of doubts and the absence of feeling, he still ministers to the poor, the addicted, the destitute even as he cannot bring himself to enter some of their homes.

To the Wonder gives very little but evokes so much, from the haunting beauty of Mont Saint-Michel to the wide open, rugged plains of Oklahoma. Detweiler puts it perfectly: “A foreigner can remind us what is marvelous about America: our cattle, our open spaces, our democratic ideals like parades through downtown.” And with To the Wonder a filmmaker as talented as Terrence Malick offers up a prayer, a hymn, and a meditation that demands repeated, devotional viewing.

To the Wonder (112 mins.) is rated R (absurd) for some “sexuality/nudity” and is in theaters and available for download on iTunes or Google Play (but it’s best to watch it on the biggest screen possible).