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Film review: To the Wonder

Salt + Light Media

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Sam Sorich is one of the Salt and Light family members who works behind the cameras and in the editing suites. Sam is a film buff with theological formation and he likes to combine the two whenever he can.  Sam recently saw the film "To the Wonder" and offers this reflection.
"To the Wonder" will make you wonder in both senses of the word: in awe at its gorgeous cinematography and vision, and in doubt and puzzlement by its lack of plot, dialogue, or any conventional storytelling devices. Terrence Malick's impressionistic experimental film-making means his films can be somewhat inaccessible to most people... but don't be afraid that you won't understand the film. As the late Roger Ebert once said, "Your intellect may be confused, but your emotions will never lie to you". However, your emotions may be saying, "I'm bored out of my mind". The reason for this is "Wonder" has very little story progressing dialogue.  We gain insight into the four main characters only by way of whispered "steam of consciousness" internal monologues, which are characteristic of all of Malick's movies.
The story follows scenes of the romantic life of Neil, (Ben Affleck) and his tumultuous relationships with two woman. Marina, (Olga Kurylenko) a single mother and failed dancer from Paris, who comes to the United States to be with Neil but the southern culture proves too foreign for her and her daughter and they move back to France. While she is away Neil falls for a Protestant southern belle, Jane (Rachel McAdams) who he knew from his childhood. Parallel to these two love stories is subplot of a Catholic priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), struggling with depression and a crisis of faith. By itself, this story seems like it could make for an interesting true-to-life love drama. However, Malick purposefully makes their encounters  mundane: grocery shopping, going to the laundry mat, going on aimless walks in the backyard. Basically boring! 
Like I said there is very little dialogue. It is as if a complete script was filmed and then Malick edited out all the parts where the characters speak to each other. So what we are left with is two hours of the characters pacing in separate rooms or looking at each other with longing gazes, or walking alone in the high grass prairies of Oklahoma.  One could walk away and say the film said nothing; which is literally true. But this is what makes it philosophically and theologically interesting.
"Wonder" is Malick's guided meditation on human and Divine love, which is essentially mysterious. As Wittgenstein says about the mystical, "what we cannot speak, we must remain silent". Malick gives us the wordless poetry of the moving image and allows us to remain silent and to look, to gaze. At what? At lovers looking.  
In between the words we say to each other and the glances we give is the necessary shutting up to express what we can't. These are the moments to which Malick points his silent gazing camera. Isn't the feeling of love most potent when looking into the eyes of the one we love and not saying anything, but simply being? Isn't pain most hurtful when someone we love quietly judges in disappointment or suspicion; and so too healing: the look of forgiveness and understanding?
Malick's insight is to let us silently gaze at the silent gaze, and reflect on its relationship to love; to God. More abstractly, the gaze is also a function of the mind. The gaze of the mind is intentionality. When our thoughts capture its object we can speak about it, describe it, we can have knowledge of it. But God who is ineffable and incomprehensible, is hidden from the gaze of our mind and demands our comprehensive silence. Therefore, there is a necessary connection between silence (not speaking) and love, since God is love (1 John). The gaze is an expression of love precisely because it says nothing.
Malick's visual clue for expressing this relationship of love, God, and gazing, is his mastery use of the allegory of light. Throughout the film the lovers are seen drenched in light; always standing by a window or walking at sunset. Random cutaways of the sky or the sun's reflection on the water depict the source of literal sight that allows us to gaze on our lover, of the natural light of reason, and most profoundly, the love of God that shines on us and within us.
Fr. Quintana makes this connection between love and sight early in the film when he says, he "cannot see God" his "heart is hard"; but later when walking alone in a poor neighbourhood he recites a prayer Mother Teresa used to say daily (the actor read her writings in order to prepare for this role), "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." Seeing is not literal in this prayer but of the heart. Love and sight are connected if not equivocated, and to "shine through" which makes possible sight/love is God's love who is Love itself. Love makes loving possible, like light makes possible sight that allows us to look at the one we love with love.
The film also makes a strong commentary on love by not glorifying the sacraments of marriage or holy orders, but by offering an honest look of the hardships of each. When Neil and Jane's relationship falls apart he marries Marina in order for her to get her green card and come back to the States. The marriage takes place in a courthouse witnessed by inmates. Their marriage is imperfect: scenes of lust, violence, and infidelity highlight the frailty of human love and the existential human condition, of bondage/ imprisonment to sin and need of redemption.
Neil and Marina seek council from Fr. Quintana, who in his homily on the readings from Ephesians, "Husbands love your wives as Christ loves the Church." he says "Christ requires a choice, you shall love? you must love whether you like it or not." Fr. Quintana is in the same position as the married couple. To love God and to feel the love of God or spouse are not the same thing. We must choose to love even when we don't feel it, by turning our gaze from ourselves to God; a eucharistic gaze that calls us to thanksgiving and praise. The adulterous Marina recognizes this turning in the last words of the film, "love that loves us, thank you".
In a movie industry ripe with moral ambiguity and nihilism, Malick is a light in the darkness, a hallmark in the artistic portrayal of the New Evangelization, a champion of the religious cinema. If beauty is to save the world, then we should challenge our sensibilities to probe  deeper.  Our christian culture is all the more rich when we engage the work and don't allow our expectations of what constitutes a traditional narrative to lead us into self-induced boredom.  Even if you leave the Theatre confused at least you opened yourself up to the wonder of it.
Photo Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

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