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