A mere two years after his metaphysically audacious and resplendent film The Tree of Life divided viewers but won the Palme D’Or at Cannes and new cohorts of admirers, Terrence Malick has made another – only his sixth in 40 years – called To the Wonder. This time the critics have been less effusive, as if one Malick picture per decade was quite enough, the investment of existential effort being too costly. Yet this follow-up is no less grand, and although it is without cosmic creation scenes, it manages to do what few other films can do: cause us to meditate on the questions that matter most. Where The Tree of Life asked about the origins of suffering, and the mysterious interplay of nature and grace, To the Wonder focuses on the human experience of love.
It begins in France, on the sandy tidal plains surrounding Mont St. Michel, where Neil (Ben Affleck) and a young Frenchwoman, Marina (Olga Kurylenko), have fallen in love and cavort in various poses of embrace and shy discovery. This is love in all its newborn glory, as Marina’s voice pays homage:
You brought me out of the shadows …The presence of the divine seems everywhere, drawing them closer to the “Love that loves us” (as Marina says). The scenes shift to Paris, and then suddenly to suburban Oklahoma, where Marina and her daughter have gone to live with Neil. There is contrapuntal contrast between the stately beauty of the old world and the superstores, backyards and hydro lines of the new world, but in the hands of Malick, there is no judgment. They are merely settings for the drama that plays out in the interiority of his protagonists.
You lifted me from the ground.
Brought me back to life.
But things start to go badly in America, as something “is missing” in their relationship, and Neil begins to have eyes for a former flame Jane (Rachel McAdams). Marina goes back to Paris, then things sour between Neil and Jane, and Marina returns without her daughter who has gone to live with her father. This might seem like a soap opera, were it not for the fact that there is little dialogue, and that themes emerge like forms upon a canvas. The narrative, characteristically thin, is somewhat more linear than The Tree of Life, and invites us to deeper degrees of reflection.
There is a serpent in the garden, an obstacle to full communion. Neil cannot commit, and is reluctant to have children or marry either woman (save for a civil marriage so Marina can get a green card). It is not just the absence of commitment, but his failure to realize that love must go beyond the romance and the beauty that mesmerize him, and requires something resembling sacrifice in order to have true depth. Marina wants to embrace this dimension, but Neil, for reasons unclear, does not. He remains aloof, as if wanting to keep his options open, or haunted by some past woundedness.
There is also a priest, Fr. Quintana, played by Javier Bardem, who is going through his own struggles with Love. In one voiceover he says: “Everywhere you are present. And still I can’t see you. You’re within me. Around me. And I have no experience of you. Not as I once did. Why don’t I hold onto what I‘ve found? My heart is cold. Hard.” He wanders among the people he serves, prisoners, mentally handicapped, and the poor, the meth addicts living on the other side of the train tracks, struggling hard to feel something. Yet he is able to preach with strength, despite himself. He is the reluctant prophet, the emptied vessel. To his congregation he says:
We wish to live inside the safety of the laws. We fear to choose. Jesus insists on choice. The one thing he condemns utterly is avoiding the choice. To choose is to commit yourself. And to commit yourself is to run the risk, is to run the risk of failure, the risk of sin, the risk of betrayal. But Jesus can deal with all of those. Forgiveness he never denies us. The man who makes a mistake can repent. But the man who hesitates, who does nothing, who buries his talent in the earth, with him he can do nothing.This is Malick’s most Catholic film, and perhaps that is why it does not resonate with all the mainstream critics. With this work, he has passed from Heideggerian questioning of Being, to grappling with the Love Incarnate. It becomes profoundly confessional, and its characters discover the only way out. To the strains of Henrik Gorecki’s Symphony #3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs), Neil bends down on one knee, kisses Marina’s hand and asks for forgiveness; Marina literally goes to confession in another scene, and receives the body and blood of Christ. The human, which has never been so tenderly rendered by Malick, and the divine, come together in sacramental dialogue and embrace.
Perhaps lost amidst the many poetic ruminations of the characters, is a prayer voiced by Fr. Quintana at the end of a climactic sequence of spiritual epiphany that had me close to tears. It is actually from Cardinal Newman, and is regularly recited by Mother Teresa's sisters: “Flood our souls with your spirit and life so completely that our lives may only be a reflection of yours. Shine through us. Show us how to seek you. We were made to see you.”
Then, at the very end, we hear Marina’s final line: Love that loves us, thank you.