In The Tree of Life, director Terrence Malick crafted a grandiose yet personal theodicy through a family story against the cosmic backdrop of creation and redemption. His new film To the Wonder is equally existential and autobiographical but focuses its attention on marriage. As in Scripture, the institution is explored as a mysterious analogue of Christ and the church.
Like much of his work, the experience may be challenging for casual audiences. It is impressionistic in style and visually driven. There is almost no dialogue aside from the glide of prayerful voice-overs. Malick rigorously avoids explaining character motivation and lets the silence serve as a blank canvas for our own introspection and reflection. Though it can be frustrating, the patient and adventurous will find some of the most beautiful cinema on screen this year.
The opening images are of a couple caught up in the sweep of love in Paris. Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) playfully explore France as Marina whispers the heightened poetry of a lover, “You lifted me from the ground. Brought me back to life.” They visit an ancient cathedral at Mont Saint-Michel nicknamed the Wonder of the West. “We climbed the steps … to the Wonder,” she proclaims, their feelings of passion momentarily aligned with the grandeur of the architecture.
Marina and her daughter Tatiana move to America and begin living with Neil in Oklahoma. The flatlands are beautiful and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki hovers adoringly over every inch of creation. Marina visits a church, where the priest’s sermon is on the divine love our marriages are meant to follow. “The husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church and give his life to her,” Father Quintana preaches, “He does not find her lovely, he makes her lovely.”
Meanwhile, Quintana is a man haunted by the fragility of his religious feeling. As he walks the streets to visit the poor, he laments that his heart is cold and he doesn’t feel the presence of God as he once did. He mournfully prays, “Why don’t I hold on to what I’ve found?” In the next scene at a local pool, this question begins to emerge as the central concern of the film. Marina looks up at Neil and finds him attentively watching another woman in a swimsuit nearby. A series of scenes quickly move us forward to show love fading and hearts hardening. Voices are raised. Fighting begins. The gloom setting in over the house matches Quintana’s somber face after performing a local wedding.
Neil is noncommittal and absently lets Marina returns to France when her visa expires. Over the next several months he begins a relationship with an old acquaintance (Rachel McAdams) but this too comes to a dead end. “What we had was nothing,” she laments. “You made it into nothing. Pleasure. Lust.”
In To the Wonder, everyone is haunted by the fleeting nature of their affection toward God and each other. The rapturous images of hands outstretched to the sky become hollow and repetitive. This may be a romantic filmmaker like Malick at his most self-critical, ashamed by his own failure to live up to the beauty his camera uncovers. The glory of the created order seems to testify against the ingratitude of his characters rather than lead them to transcendence.
In time Marina returns and marries Neil at the courthouse. They are happy again but still find that their passion comes and goes. Eventually they pace the house on different floors, avoiding each other. They kiss with a mournful quality. At their church ceremony, the exchange of rings becomes a tortured image of failure. “This sign I give you is a sign of our constant faith and abiding love…”
Like the psalmists in Scripture, Quintana’s spiritual struggles also persist, “My soul thirsts for you. Exhausted.” “Will you be like a stream that dries up?”
The story marches on toward catastrophe and adultery. Marina’s ominous walk up the stairs of a motel is painfully drawn out. The man she sleeps with has a tattoo of a skull on his chest. Sin as suicide. It is the final failure in a long series of failures. It is as if Malick is recapitulating the narrative flow of Old Testament history. The covenant community was frequently described as God’s unfaithful bride; repeatedly taking one step forward and two steps back over the course of millennia. As recognized in the film by Quintana, “The prophet Hosea saw in the breakdown of his marriage the spiritual infidelity of his people. In that broken marriage we see the pattern.” Like the Mosaic economy of old, this story has steadily driven us toward a confrontation with covenant unfaithfulness and final breakdown.
For the first time we hear the words, “Forgive me.”
What follows is startlingly unambiguous and Christological. Aching music from Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 begins to play as we watch Father Quintana visit the poor, the diseased, the dying. Even Neil, who prior to now has had no faith, walks alongside him. Marina asks God the question we’ve been asking the film up to this point, “Where are you leading me?”
A flood of images pour over us as Quintana walks with the disabled, holds shaking Alzheimer’s hands, and visits hospital beds. He touches the outcasts and the broken. He meets them in their weakness. We hear his voice recite the famous prayer, “Christ be with me. Christ before me. Christ behind me. Christ in me. Christ beneath me. Christ above me. Christ on my right. Christ on my left. Christ in my heart.” Back at home, Neil moves toward Marina and kneels at her feet, kissing her hands in a flooding moment of grace.
This climax has crashed us upon the shores of the gospel. Sacrifice and forgiveness.
In the film’s closing moments, Malick resists simplistic resolution to the lives of the characters. Their marriage is not suddenly restored. The primary thrust here is eschatological. We end with prayer and with hope. “Show us how to seek you. We were made to see you.” We’ve glimpsed a partial redemption already breaking in but not yet fully reached. The Sabbath rest is still beyond this wilderness.
But the final image points us to “the Wonder”, the cathedral of Mont Saint-Michel standing tall after centuries. The skies are stormy but it stands tall; a symbol of the covenant-keeping Christ whose care for his bride never changes. The only hope for fainthearted lovers like us.