To the Wonder and Terrence Malick’s disappearing God

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.

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How do you read To the Wonder as a piece along with Tree of Life (arguably his most explicit film about faith)?

Has he just as quickly and recently experienced a crisis of faith in between these films? Or as his films have gotten more autobiographical is he just exploring different elements present in his life? As we know that doubt can plague the most steadfast of believers. -Not assuming he is, or needing to baptize him or his films, just wondering aloud about interpretation.

Thanks for your caution in wanting to pull Malick’s personal beliefs from his films; I hope I haven’t gone too far in that direction myself, for barring a tell-all interview (not likely), we’ll never really know.

As far as what the films themselves say to me, I read The Tree of Life as an equally questioning movie. It’s just that the questions there - where does sin come from? why do we act on it rather than grace? - are ones that suppose a relationship with God and His world, albeit a somewhat tortured one. As I see it, To the Wonder is a much bleaker search: it’s a movie about belief in God that is in danger of being lost.

As you said, doubt plagues the most steadfast of believers, so this is a relevant story to tell no matter where Malick may (or may not be) at in his own life.

Having finally seen the film I would like to push back a bit on your notion that this is a film that lacks affirmation or is bleak in its depiction of faith and spiritual searching. Perhaps my take may just end up revealing more about me and my experience with faith and doubt than the movie, but for me the film was a wonderful affirmation of a love that is transitioning from something transient, to a love or belief based on something more real or lasting.

I feel like you are not giving the priest’s prayer enough credit at the end of the film where he says things like, “We were made to see you” and asking that we be reflections of God still, after all his expressions of doubt and alienation. The film feels like a prayer that has walked through infatuation and doubt, and emerged upon something more substantial and firm. Bardem hides from that one lady, but in the end he is still going to people in need, and perhaps I am putting too much credit in the fact that through the whole movie he is still talking to God. I fear more for the person who no longer addresses God than the person who voices their doubts to Him. The reality of talking still speaks of an active faith, whereas the lack of communication between Affleck and Kurylenko is the ultimate damning of their relationship.

Also, the final words of the film “Love that loves us, thank you”, cannot be more affirmative. Through the whole experience she is still able to experience wonder and thank the source of the love she feels for all things. There is also the amazing line that is in the trailer from the priest, “You feel your love has died, perhaps it is waiting to be transformed into something greater.” (May be a paraphrase)

In the end, I think To the Wonder does look at doubt, spiritual struggle, and God’s silence, but it is all within the bounds of a person of faith. In many ways I have felt this way about Pedro the Lion & his solo stuff. No matter what he was saying, however inflammatory, was distressing to me because he was still addressing God in his music. I find it more bleak when a person who is searching or struggling with God ceases to address him at all. The whole film felt like C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed. A personal look at faith in crisis, but an ultimate affirmation of God as an eternal reality and not merely as someone who is engaged in and understood through a purely emotional relationship that is unsustainable.

Thanks for coming back to add your thoughts Tristram.
I think you offer a solid reading of the film. I struggled with that ending prayer in particular, and can certainly see why you would read it this way. I guess I took the more pessimistic angle - that the prayer was a plea from the priest (part of his continued search) rather than an affirmation - because otherwise it felt like a sudden reversal, a tacked-on ending to offer a feel-good bit of assurance. In dramatic - not spiritual - terms, that would make To the Wonder a weaker film for me.

Weighing in late here but ...

1. Josh, thank you for seriously tackling a Malick movie with the respect/admiration/insight his movies deserve. Regardless of where his messages land, his movies demand attention.

2. I’m Tristram on this one. Much like in Tree of LIfe I believe the character arc of the movie lies in one line toward the end. In Tree of Life Jessica Chastain’s character starts by asking “God where were you when my son died” and ends - after the scene of some sort of heavenly reunion by going back to her point of suffering and saying “I entrust my son to you.”

To the Wonder, I think, is a search not just for love, but for TRANSCENDENT love. The Woman experiences this briefly, fleetingly, with The Man (they climbed steps to the wonder) but in this she sense she’s truly searching for The Source of Love. It’s her failure personally, and in those around her, to sustain that transcendent moment that sends her reeling and searching and praying.

The priest similarly can’t find God, but his struggle is due to isolation. He serves and serves and serves but is never known. In both his case and the woman’s it is the need (and failure) of human love that creates distance from God. Ironically they can see this love in the beauty all around them. Malick shows us people separated from love, yet bathed in it. His cinematography evokes the spiritual with every shot.

The struggle then of the movie is how can we live in the love of “the one who loves us” when all around us love falls apart? While the priests ending is ambiguous, the woman’s - I think - is not. Much like Chastain’s line in TOL, in To the Wonder she says “love who loved us ... thank you.”

It’s not an answer exactly - because in a fallen world will this answer ever be fully resolved? - but is a hope. A hope that one day all things will be made new and every tear will be wiped away.

Which is why I finished the movie breathless, and sad, yet hopeful, and saying “Come, Lord Jesus.”

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