Elusive writer-director Terrence Malick has become something of a patron saint for cineastes who also happen to be Christians (yes, we’re out there). From Badlands, his 1973 debut, to 2011’s The Tree of Life, he’s produced increasingly spiritual and densely theological tone poems, ones whose pursuit of grace indicates a decidedly New Testament persuasion. Yet To the Wonder, his latest, may be a challenge for those viewers, for this is at once Malick’s most earnest search for God and the film of his in which God is hardest to find.
Malick dials back considerably from The Tree of Life, an ambitious masterwork which paused from its central narrative to indulge in a mesmerizing, gorgeous creation sequence. To the Wonder, on its surface, is a simple relationship drama, in which a Parisian named Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and an American named Neil (Ben Affleck) fall deeply in love and begin a new life together in middle America. It doesn’t take long, however, for you to realize that the movie is a rather bluntly stated if beautiful Malick metaphor, in which the couple’s search for lasting love stands in for the pursuit of relationship with God.
It’s telling, even early on, that the pinnacle of Marina and Neil’s whirlwind romance takes place at the cathedral on the tidal island of Mont Saint-Michel. Marina – who gets the brunt of Malick’s trademark voiceover dialogue – uses the locale's nickname as they enter the cathedral’s courtyard: “We climbed the steps to the wonder.” Here, their closeness to each other is in direct relation to their closeness to God - or at least to the human edifice erected to remind us of His presence.
Things change in America, which Malick depicts – not without some affection – as a land of power lines, blaring marching bands and planned subdivisions where the predominate color is beige. A dullness begins to creep into Marina and Neil’s relationship too; not because of anyone’s wrong action, we sense, but because the intensity of early infatuation is difficult for any relationship to sustain. Even Marina’s 10-year-old daughter (Tatiana Chiline), who was eager to move to America, sighs and notes that “there’s something missing.”
In case we haven’t already made the parallel between the fading of romantic love and a fading faith, Malick gives us a third main character: the priest (Javier Bardem) who serves in Marina and Neil’s town. Father Quintana is a spiritual heir to the anguished man of the cloth in Robert Bresson’s great Diary of a Country Priest. That movie’s priest of Ambricourt (Claude Laydu) is a servant who has dedicated his life to a God he no longer hears. Quintana similarly cries, “Everywhere You’re present. Yet I can’t see You.” A janitor at Quintana’s church puts a hand on a stained-glass window and tells him, “You got to feel the warmth of the light. That’s spiritual.” To Quintana, the window is cold.
To the Wonder is a bit heavy-handed this way, although the film may also weigh heavily on the heart of the Christian viewer because of its lack of affirmation. That janitor is the movie’s only real moment of witness, whereas Malick’s previous films have often taken great care – frequently in their depiction of nature – to offer glimpses of God (even the hell-on-earth that was The Thin Red Line had scenes that billowed with the beauty of creation).
No such comfort is offered here to the committed believer (beware of spoilers ahead). To the Wonder is a riff on Psalm 22 that never quite gets to the 22nd verse. The movie ends back at Mont Saint-Michel, but don’t mistake it for a return to God’s bosom. Notice, we’re outside of the cathedral. And we’re alone.