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To the Wonder

April 12, 2013
To the Wonder

It would be possible for someone to squint at Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and claim that it’s merely “spiritual” and not “really religious”. This is not the case for his follow-up, To the Wonder; this film is overtly and intentionally religious, although not in a social hot-button-issue kind of way. It’s possible to draw secular points about love and relationships here, but Malick approaches them along distinctly Catholic lines, shrugging at those who turn their noses up at any mention of faith. I say it’s their loss, to be closed off to such a gorgeously meditative film, but there are other paths to the same conclusions.

Stylistically, To the Wonder follows closely in the footsteps of The Tree of Life. The story is told in visual clips with occasional snippets of dialogue, but most of it comes across in the voice-over work. Malick almost inverts the roles of audio and video, with images serving to flesh out the disembodied words. Those who found that meditative, impressionistic style off-putting last time around aren’t likely to enjoy this much either. But this is the direction Malick has been heading since The Thin Red Line, if not before, so it’s hardly a surprise.

The story itself concerns the relationship between Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko). They meet in Paris and fall in love. Marina moves back with Neil — along with her daughter, Anna (Romina Mondello) — to rural Oklahoma, where he works as a geologist for an oil company. But they don’t get married, and when her visa expires she leaves. Neil has a relationship with a local girl, Jane (Rachel McAdams), but eventually Marina returns, this time leaving Anna with her father, Marina’s first husband.

We also follow some scenes from the perspective of Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), the pastor of the Catholic parish Marina attends while in Oklahoma. Fr. Quintana’s pastoral work seems to lead to a crisis of faith on his part, but he carries on even as he struggles to find a reason.

Fr. Quintana’s difficulties with his faith parallel those of Neil with his love. But where Fr. Quintana carries on and works through his struggles, Neil grows distant and disconnected, and things fall apart. The theological virtues — faith, hope, and love — are not things we simply have or are granted. Virtue — indeed, salvation — is not accomplished in any single event, but only by a lifelong process of works of grace, creeping slowly towards the wonder of God.

Fr. Quintana is sad, but stoic as he carries out his pastoral duties, always looking to follow the Church as well as his own conscience, always looking for reason to believe. Neil and Marina grow complacent in their good moments, and fall to pieces when things become tense. Being born again in love is simply not sufficient.

Am I reading some of this in from my own history? it’s possible. Malick has certainly grown more and more abstract, and there is a rough, almost unfinished quality to this film. I can melt into The Tree of Life, but To the Wonder doesn’t flow quite as smoothly. I cannot rank it as high as its predecessor, but whether the fault is Malick’s or my own I know that I have more work to do to understand this gorgeous, wonderful work of art.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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