Pope John Paul II wrote in his Letter to Artists that one of the great dignities of artists is their ability to reveal an “echo of the mystery of God’s creation.” In Terrance Malick’s The Tree of Life, it was God’s Divine Providence along side the problem of evil. In To the Wonder, it is the mystery of love.
Expect a similar look and feel to The Tree of life, absent of a conventional narrative. In The Tree of Life, Malick used a stunning “discovery channel type” sequence to unveil the mystery of God’s creation. In To the Wonder, he utilizes a poetic style to open the viewer’s mind, imagination, and heart to reveal the depths of true love’s mystery. Be ready to go well beneath the surface of most “love stories.” It’s worth it!
The film opens with Marina (Olga Kurylenk) spinning and dancing through a Parisian park while her voice over prayerfully expresses with heartfelt emotion her new found love with Neil (Ben Affleck), “I open my eyes, New born” to the beautiful WONDER OF LOVE! The scene quickly moves to Marina and Neil at Mont St. Michel, on an island off the Normandy coast. They frolic around the picturesque, secluded and peaceful surroundings of the Mont and then inside the empty Catholic Church that sits atop the Mont. The lovers venture through the church, gazing at the vaulted ceilings, the stone altar and the baptismal font and into its inner courtyards.
This opening sequence is no random imagery; rather it grounds the whole exploration of the mystery of love, particularly the love shared between Marina and Neil, in the transcendent and haunting Divine Love. Could not newly found love between a man and woman that seems to spring forth from nothing be called anything else but a Divine Miracle? It is this type of love that can only have God as its creative and mysterious source. In fact, the name of this film is a dead give away of what Malick is trying to communicate. In Marina's words, "We climbed the steps to the wonder." The island and church, nicknamed "the wonder" is a powerful symbol of Christ like love (“agape love”) where Christ (The Bridegroom) is totally committed to His Bride (the Church). He even gave His life for her. How romantic is our God! [Eph. 5:25] “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her.”
There are other reasons Malick brilliantly anchors the cinematic poem with Mont St. Michel, a metaphor of the fortress of Divine Love. The tides in the area change quickly (as Malick captures) and have been described by Victor Hugo as "à la vitesse d'un cheval au galop" or "as swiftly as a galloping horse." The tides set the stage for a challenging and chaotic reality in Neil and Marina’s search for a true and sustained love – emotions and passions of love quickly rush in and out of relationships with the force of a galloping horse. Something else is more defining and essential for a true and sustained love. St. Augustine wrote in his Confessions, “My heart is restless until its rests in you, Lord.” Malick gets to the core of this. Marina and her daughter Tatiana follow Neil from romantic Paris back to his home in a sterile Oklahoma suburb. Soon after the emotional and fantastical high of Paris and settling into Oklahoma, we soon begin to realize that though Marina and Neil are head over heels in Love, yet they are not married. There is something missing in their love that leads to emptiness throughout the film between Marina and Neil. Neil’s heart is not fully committed to Marina. Even Tatiana senses it.
We are also shown what seems to be a flashback of Neil in a relationship with another woman, Jane (Rachel McAdams). Malick reveals a defect in Neil’s heart that keeps him, or anyone, from experiencing the depths of true committed love. A Jane voiceover says, “I trust you.” It is evident that Jane wants to get married to Neil. Further Jane asks, “Will you pray with me” but Neil responds, “I have no faith.” If God (agape love) is not at the center of married love, it will be difficult to sustain and grow in commitment. Soon, the viewer sees the love shared between Jane and Neil break apart as he begins to glance longingly at other women, and like with Marina, forever keeping his options open and uncommitted and turning love (in Jane's VO) into "nothing but pleasure, lust."
Malick interjects Fr. Quintana (Javier Bardem), a priest in the Oklahoma town, as a sentinel like figure to keep the viewer oriented through the changing tides of love that Neil and Marina experience. The viewer hears a Fr. Quintana homily on committed love, “A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church, and give his life for her.”
Fr. Quintana is also shown to be human through a crisis with his own vocation to the priesthood, a vocation that is essentially a call to a committed loving relationship with God through serving His people. In his voiceover he says, "I thirst" (for God) but worries that the "stream is dried up." He further confesses to God, "Everywhere you are present. And still I can't see you. You're within me, around me, and I have no experience of you. Not as I once did. Why don't I hold onto what I've found? My heart is cold. Hard.”
Many film critics have read into this crisis of Fr. Quintana as a dreadful lowliness attributed to priestly celibacy – but given the context of the film, they totally miss the point here in Malick’s depth and insight into the mystery of true love. Yes, Fr. Quintana appears lonely, but not for a woman. His loneliness is rooted in feeling disconnected from God while he struggles with the challenges and demands of his calling to totally commit his life to the Bride (The Church). Husbands and wives, though physically intimate, can also feel just as lonely when disconnected from each other and without agape love at the center of their marriage vocation.
Consequent scenes show Marina is unhappy because Neil, though still in love with her, is not totally engaged - He is not committed to her, let alone willing to give his life for her. Marina returns to Paris only to wrestle with a restless heart and return again to Neil in Oklahoma. But since the obstacle in Neil’s heart is never removed, their relationship goes from bad to worse (ugly arguments, violent outburst, Marina’s unfaithfulness).
Fr. Quitana says in another homily, “Love is not a feeling. It’s a command. You shall love whether you like it or not. Even if you feel your love has dried up. Maybe it’s being transformed into something higher.” We finally see the beauty of this transformation of Neil’s heart. After he punishes Marina with emotional abandonment for her unfaithfulness, he finally empathizes with her pain and kneels in front of her in a scene that not only forgives but asks for forgiveness as well.
The film’s true depth and sophistication on the mystery of true committed love (whether it be in marriage, a religious vocation, or otherwise), becomes strikingly apparent as Fr. Quintana is depicted achieving a spiritual epiphany. In his priestly calling to agape love, he comforts a succession of suffering people — the old, the anguished, the addicted, the crippled, the sick, and the dying — he recites a devotion of St. Patrick: "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 the heart." The sequence reaches its climax with the recitation of a prayer by Cardinal Newman (one that was also prayed daily by Mother Teresa's Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity): "Flood our souls with your spirit and life so completely that our lives may only be a reflection of yours. Shine through us. Show us how to seek you. We were made to see you."
In the wondrous joy of romantic love, in self-giving sacrifice, in our suffering and the suffering of others, in the charity we offer to those in pain, in the resplendent beauty of the natural world – the mystery of true love is found. In To the Wonder, Malick reveals another echo of God’s mysterious relationship with humanity. We are made for life everlasting with God and God’s love for us is always present all around us. He is totally committed to us! If we just open the eyes of our hearts to see. Could it be that Malick is developing as one the great mystic theologians of our time?
There is so much depth to this film. It most likely will not be popular because it takes work. However, the more you reflect on this film, like in prayer, the more it will reveal itself to you. This is what makes this Malick film so meaningful and timeless and beautiful – and why New Ethos gives it its Logo Award of Excellence!