Monday, April 22, 2013

To the Wonder

By Terrence Malick

            “Know each other in the love that never changes.”  This is the appeal of Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, spoken through the film’s moral center, a priest struggling to find the warmth of God’s love while living a many times lonely life of celibacy.  Before addressing what Malick means by this, and what he is doing with this film, it must first be stated that this is a distinctly Christian film; a Christ-centered and God-fearing ode to the source of love itself.  In his previous opus, The Tree of Life, Malick portrayed God in His glory as creator, both in things grandiose and in the work of recreating human hearts.  Here Malick is more thematically pointed, narrowing in on the definition of love.  The film contrasts God’s call to love selflessly with the world’s twisting of the word to represent a fleeting emotion easily altered by the innate human desire to be our own purveyors of truth and pleasure. 
            The romance that serves as the center of the film seems familiar, but not because it is common to film.  There are no familiar movie plot-points.  Rather, it is familiar because it is recognized in so many ordinary lives.  The ebbs and flows of romantic affections have impacted us all, whether personally or in the lives of those close to us.  This film mirrors the well-known path from the euphoric beginnings of a romance to the terrible lows.  Eventually, the film finds hope not in the changing people who feel love, but in the God who is love (1 John 4:8), never changes (Hebrews 13:8), and works in and through his church to love and nurture our hearts (Ephesians 4:15-16).  This is not, however, given as a pad solution.  Instead, faith is accurately portrayed as a long and weighty process fraught with doubt and the damaging effects of stubborn, selfish desire. 
Importantly, the film warns not only to avoid the extreme of trusting in mankind for ultimate fulfillment, but through the priest’s journey, also warns in trusting only theological knowledge or piety.  Hope is found between these extremes.  Malick argues we need both Christ and community to find true joy.  More fully and succinctly, Malick points to a need for the love of Christ in and through Christian community, portrayed here most pointedly in marriage.  This is the love that never changes – the love of Christ in us.
            With all this said, it must be stated that while Malick does deftly handle the complexities of the subject matter, the film is not perfect.  Sappy portrayals of idyllic new romance may have some viewers rolling their eyes, and the film’s central relationship is underdeveloped, leaving too many unanswered questions to emotionally engage viewers.  These flaws, however, are slight when compared to the film’s cinematic power and remarkable poeticism.  This is the work of a true artist - no one is putting more of himself into filmmaking today, and no one has a more unique and wondrous voice.

***½ out of ****

                I loved The Tree of Life.  Absolutely loved it.  It’s just outside my top ten.  The way Malick presents creation, nature, grace, sin, and redemption in that film is astonishing.  Thus, going into To the Wonder, my expectations were high.  Probably unfortunately, because although a lot of the film works beautifully, its problems were hard to look past.          

Bardem as a lonely priest
        I must say that I was excited every time the priest character, played expertly by Javier Bardem, was onscreen.  Malick’s meditations on grace and love in Christ through times of doubt were fabulous.  I loved the scenes that showcased the loneliness of the priest, and I loved hearing the whispered prayers of the priest, a man who clearly wrestles with his faith while remaining faithful.  I echo his struggles so frequently in my life, and I imagine Malick is putting a lot of his own doubts and struggles into these words. 
                However, I found every moment where the couple was onscreen to be messy and muddled.  The central characters, like you say, were not well-drawn, and I think because of that, I could not see any good contrasts or tie-ins between the two stories.  Most of the couple’s relationship is told through touch and dance, which is inventive, to be sure, but I felt as though all the jumping and leaping and dancing just couldn’t communicate romance fully.  I found myself wishing during all the scenes of the couple(s) that we could have more of the priest – not a good sign. 
                You say “no one is putting more of himself into filmmaking today”, and I think I agree (although I can think of a few directors who are also putting a lot of themselves into filmmaking), so I can give Malick a lot of grace and pass, but because the central couple takes up about ¾ of the film, it just didn’t end up coming together for me as a whole.

I’m wavering between **1/2 stars and *** stars.

                Let’s begin our discussion with the character of the priest.  I also found it distracting that the complexities of this character’s struggles are mined deeply while the romantic leads are used mostly as archetypes.  This aspect of the film is, indeed, a bit disjointed.  The story of the couple seems to rely solely on the camera to communicate emotion and skips details many would deem necessary.  While I find Malick’s camera (and the film’s beautiful score) to be effective at communicating emotion, I did have to take much of what I was given matter-of-factly.  Conversely, with the priest, both the camera and intimate insights into the convictions of the character build upon each other to a more affecting whole.  As a result, I also found myself wanting to spend more time with Malick’s priest.  In the end, this distracts from the mostly cerebral and theological connections Malick draws between the stories, as the marital conflict is overshadowed by the immense spiritual weight of the priest’s struggles.  Perhaps we are simply too familiar with marital conflict to find it as interesting as the priest’s turmoil without a further, deeper exploration of character impulses.
                That being said, I found the contrast between longings for filial love (the priest) and romantic love (the couple) to be compelling.  The film’s priest is asked to provide guidance to married couples and his community, all while being set apart by the collar he wears.  It is, perhaps, a subtle indictment of the inclination of the masses to view priests (or pastors, ministers, etc.) as above the need for human connection.  The film carefully reminds us that this is not true – we all need human connection.  God made us that way.  I saw parallels between the stories in that both the priest and the couple were seeking fulfillment in, respectively, the empty promises of piety and romance – they had “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creation rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25).  The film is, in the end, not a romance, but a film about true love.


Jane and Neil
            While I definitely see these themes, I simply don’t think they ultimately worked as well as they could have.
            Also, may I ask what the point of the Jane (McAdams) character was?  I thought their relationship was interesting, but I didn’t get an understanding of *SPOILER, if Malick films can be spoiled* why he would leave her to return to Marina (Kurylenko).  I understand that Malick tried to communicate that Marina and Neil had a passionate connection, but I didn’t buy it, and found the relationship between Neil and Jane more believable. 

            To be honest, in my whole process of writing about this film, McAdams didn’t enter my mind once.  Her part was, indeed, minor.  To me, her role was to emphasize further a motif of worldly desire for sexual and relational novelty.  Malick took pains to communicate that the male center of the romance was entirely selfish and not trustworthy – a good lover, but a bad savior.  By providing this portrait in two settings, Malick further emphasized these flaws.  However, this does, admittedly, make the fact that he *SPOILER* goes back to Marina, and even marries her, quite inconsistent.  The film could have definitely benefitted from more attention paid to this moment.  Perhaps it would have benefitted most by scratching the Jane plot altogether and replacing it with a less invested reminder of these traits.  The whole thing was a misstep, for sure.

Neil and Marina
            I think another problem is that Jane was, to me, a much more compelling personality than Marina.  She is openly vulnerable about her dreams, failures, and beliefs.  Marina just danced around, and Kurylenko’s performance was lacking.  I get that Malick was trying to portray that she was free spirited and fun, but it fell flat to me.  An entire characterization cannot be so simple, especially if she is the central character on which your whole premise hinges.
            Alas, I don’t think the discussion has helped me clarify my rating – I think I’m hopelessly stuck.  I want to give Malick a pass because his themes resonate with me, and I love how different and exciting he is as an artist, but I don’t know how much I can excuse how rushed this production feels.  So I’m just going to have to go with ** ¾ stars.

Two-as-One Rating: ***⅛

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