To the Wonder: A Review of the New Film by Terrence Malick

tothewonder1My beloved is mine and I am his; 

he pastures his flock among the lilies.

Until the day breathes

and the shadows flee.      Song of Solomon 2

The new film To the Wonder by director Terrence Malick asks the most fundamental of spiritual questions, “Who is this Love that loves us?”, and he points to human love as a quest for the experience of divine love. My faithful readers will know that Malick is my favorite director, and this film fits comfortably within his previous works in terms of style but turns towards a much more blatant Christian theology as the backdrop to the film. It is the perfect follow-on to Tree of Life where Malick pointed us to the grandness of the cosmos, the largeness and mystery of God, and the way in which that grandeur permeates daily life. In this film, Malick wants to say that this God is a God, not just of mystery and magnitude, but who loves us forever.

The film is the story of a West Texan or Oklahoman named Neil, played by Ben Affleck, who meets a Ukrainian immigrant Marina, played by Olga Kurylinko, on a trip to Paris. Marina is a divorcee and has a child from that marriage that she brings along with her to join Affleck in his native western America where she hopes to find lasting and true love. Her child struggles to make friends in the new land, Marina is unhappy, she has a tryst with a man just to feel love, and she returns home to Paris. Affleck’s heart is broken, but he finds another lover to replace Marina, played by Rachel McAdams. This relationship also sours, and Affleck finds himself alone. Marina is lonely and miserable in Paris, and she finally leaves the City of Love for the barren land again where Neil waits to receive her back. This time, there are angry outbursts and mild violence between the two, but they continue to seek a lasting love until they finally feel its embrace.

A sub-plot is the story of a priest played by Javier Bardem who is struggling in his faith and feels unable to bring others into connection with God because he has stopped experiencing the presence of God in his own life. Throughout the film, Bardem utters prayers asking God to let him experience God in a fresh way again. By the end of the film, Bardem rediscovers God’s tenderness and love in offering himself as a compassionate presence to the sick and dying, all of whom too seek to know the presence of God just as others in this film. As the film ends, the priest prays the famous prayer of St. Patrick, “Christ in me, Christ beside me, Christ above me, etc.”.

tothewonder3

Throughout the film, we hear Marina and the priest pray, similar to the prayerful voice of Tree, and we are led into a meditation on the question Marina poses at the beginning of the film, “Who is this Love that loves us?” The prayers are a contemporary version of Song of Solomon of sorts, juxtaposing the experience of divine and human love as the same. Just like the human loves in this film, the Love that loves us sometimes seems distant, sometimes is passionate, sometimes is disappointed in our inability to return love, sometimes is jealous of our tendency to find love in non-fulfilling and cheap ways in an effort to quench our thirst, and sometimes reveals that Love in the most desolate of places where we would not expect. In fact, it seems that Malick is saying through his prayers and cinematography, which points equally to the beauty of Mont St. Michel and to the plains of the west, that love can be found in either place because divine love is as present in Paris, Texas as much as it is in Paris, France.

tothewonder2

As the film ends, Marina runs through the fields that had seemed so barren and lonely to her before, and this time sun beams down on the fields. She runs with open hands, having found lasting love both human and divine. She now has an answer to the question she first posed: “This is the Love that loves us, and I am thankful.”

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