In Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, Poetry Transcends Plot

To the Wonder is a deeply spiritual film: A meditation on human and divine love, and the place where those two things meet.

I won’t waste any time on the plot; some viewers will be frustrated by the lack here’s-what’s-happening clarity. I’d suggest going in without expectations for understanding the logistics and instead feel your way through the film. The emotions are made clear through the eye of the almost-always-moving camera, expertly controlled by Terrence Malick and his brilliant cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.

As I was leaving the theatre, I thought I heard someone behind me whisper, “That’s how God sees us.” Or maybe I just wanted to hear that whispered, because the cinematography struck me as—get ready for a theologically weighty word here—incarnational. The camera seemed to be making everything in its view holy. Rotting neighborhoods. Snorting buffalo. Suburban-beige tract houses. New romance. Domestic angst. Lapsing faith. Stained glass warmed by winter sun. It’s not just that so much of the film was shot during the sunset hour that bathes scenes in golden light. It was the way the camera gracefully moved, found the symmetry in the disparate, sought out the beauty in the rank, saw the divine in the not.

The voice-over monologues of the characters reinforce the theme of incarnation: God inside the human, the earthly, the unworthy, the ugly, the ordinary, the dull. Malick’s characters whisper to their lovers, to themselves, to God, and to all three at the same time. “Here I am,” Marina (Olga Kurylenko) calls, and it sounds like a cry to both to Neil (Ben Affleck) and to Something/Someone bigger. The priest (Javier Bardem) has a more specifically developed vocabulary for this longing, and his prayer of St. Patrick runs over images of the neighborhood he serves, the people he tries to help, and flashes of Marina and Neil’s life together: “Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left…”  Paired with those images, the prayer is not a plea but a statement of fact: Here is the divine, right here, right with us, in you, in me.

The juxtaposition reminded me of the writing of Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, especially this passage:

“In most pictures of people waiting for the Holy Spirit they are looking upward, they have their hands out or raised—the assumption being that the Spirit is ‘up’ there. In the Great Basilica in Assisi there’s a little bronze statue of St. Francis honoring the Holy Spirit. His posture and perspective are completely different from the usual. He’s got his hands folded looking into the earth. …If Divinity became flesh in Jesus, if God entered the world as a human being, then… the physical, the animal, the elements, sexuality, embodiment, the material universe—whatever your place of connection has been—these are the hiding places and the revealing places of God. That changes everything, and it was supposed to change everything.” – Richard Rohr, “Incarnation,” Daily Mediation 36 of 49, From an unpublished conference recording in Assisi, Italy, May 2012  

If people ask me what To the Wonder is about, I’ll might just start referring them to Rohr. Or maybe I’ll say it can all be summed up in Marina’s last line: “Thank you, Love that loves us.”

What films strike you as deeply spiritual?

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Sarah Magill

Sarah Magill has a full-time movie habit made possible by a day-time greeting card writing gig. She blogs at Gimme Some Film and is learning to write scripts and direct. She tries to balance her screen obsession with trail running, jazz singing, book clubbing, and hanging out with The Best Golden Retriever Ever, Copa.

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0 comments on “In Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, Poetry Transcends Plot”

  1. I think it’s a true testament to you as a movie-lover that you can equally enjoy comic book movies and Terrence Malick…uh…explorations. When people ask me what kind of movies are my favorite, I always say, “Good ones.” It doesn’t matter what genre or who’s in it. Of course, my definition of what I think is “Good” is ever-evolving. Currently, I’m in a phase where I need a solid story as a gateway into the characters. The screen is never more opaque than when I don’t care about the story…or when there isn’t one at all. I think that’s why I’m off Terrence Malick. I remember liking The Thin Red Line and most of The New World though.

    I think, ultimately, at the end of a film, if I’m going to feel exhausted or challenged, I want it to be from the emotional journey of experiencing the characters interact with each other through the story — not from trying super hard to understand and make sense of what’s going on.

    • I totally get being story-focused at the moment. I usually am, especially when I’m immersed in trying to get my own screenplay outline right or struggling with an arc for a short. There’s something in Malick’s filmmaking that gets me over the story hurdle, though. I am a sucker for natural-light film (it feels so real), and that may be part of it. It’s also that he tends to explore themes that I’m interested in and spend a lot of time thinking about myself. If his explorations were more on the nihilistic side (ahem, von Trier), I’d care a whole lot less.

  2. Did you see this in a theatre in Kansas City? I can’t find it except for in big cities. Looks truly magical the way it was filmed. If it is not here I will rent it off Amazon ; )

  3. Great review, I missed it in the theater but will watch it asap when it’s out. Love the way you connected the themes spiritually, too, especially in light of our recent Trinitarian discussions. That St. Patrick’s prayer is one of my favorite saintly prayers ever spoken.

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