Terrence Malick’s films tend to perplex certain audiences. To the Wonder is likely to leave many viewers, used to the typical Hollywood movies with unambiguous narrative tales, totally stone cold. And yet it is true poetry on celluloid for others.
Malick’s cinema is different from the average Hollywood fare. In many ways, To the Wonder is comparatively easy to appreciate amongst Malick’s body of work because this is a film that deals essentially with a regular man-woman love affair, a subject that would go down well with for most traditional movie-goers. However, it is the treatment of the subject that is so different from the usual fare, not the subject. A major difference that an attentive viewer will pick up is that when you hear the voice-over of Marina, the main protagonist, the constant occurrence of “you” in her monologue do not merely refer to her beau Neil but also to God. A viewer is likely to assume that she is addressing her male companion because he does appear to be the obvious center of her affection on screen—but a careful study of the ambiguous words reveals that Marina is addressing God as well.
|Dance of joy during courtship|
Appreciating Malick’s cinema, or at least appreciating the last five of his six films, does not necessarily require the audiences to be believers in God—but belief in God and knowledge of Christian scriptures definitely helps understand Malick’s dialectics beyond the visual and the spoken word. Malick’s cinema can be enthralling by the sheer and combined beauty of the pristine images of nature, natural light and physical movements of gay abandon captured by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (his third feature film for Malick) that visually waltzes with joy recalling the Geoffrey Unsworth’s camerawork in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey, which had sequences where space stations seemed to dance to the music of Johann Strauss. Any viewer would appreciate the importance that Malick when his films tend to linger and savor natural light (especially during twilight and dawn) and magnify the beauty of wind, plants, grasses, trees, flowers, animals and even insects-- all visuals and imagery to underscore the tale of love between men and women in the forefront of the cinematic tale. A viewer with a taste for music can also appreciate the eclectic and the magical choice of music that Malick arranges from diverse sources (especially in his The Tree of Life, and less so in To the Wonder) in his films. In To the Wonder, Malick carefully picks sublime pieces by Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Haydn, Gorecki, Bach, Shostakovich, and Rachmaninoff and knits them into the film with profound effect. But these very visuals and music take on added meaning, if they are appreciated in the context of the voice-overs (the spoken words that the viewer rarely sees actually being spoken by actors on the screen).
|Silent grazing bisons and humans during twilight|
In To the Wonder, Malick introduces images of the American bison, wild horses and tamed horses, and even a couple of insects on the wall of a house. Is it by accident or by design? The human behavior captured in To the Wonder appears to be a projection of these very images of natural fauna—there is Neil. who is mostly quiet but can be as violent as a bison when provoked, there is Marina who can be carefree and happy as a wild horse and simultaneously difficult to contain her impulses as a corralled horse, and there are several individuals in the movie such as the two insects on the wall attracted to each other.
Almost all the later Malick films increasingly resort to the sporadic voice-overs of characters who are participating in the film but may or may not be in front of the camera. And in To the Wonder, Malick adds yet another element that could irritate the conventional cinema-goer: the voice-over begins before the visuals change. Editing gets a makeover. Malick is changing the grammar of cinema in a way the French director Jacques Demy attempted with his feature film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a 1964 French film that replaced regular spoken dialog totally with songs. No one attempted another film like that again but Malick is relentless in a somewhat similar effort to create cinema with a difference. There is hardly any conventional spoken dialogue between two individuals in To the Wonder: what the audience gets served instead are visuals, music, silence (the incredible scene with the bisons, often incorrectly referred to as the American buffalo), and meditative voice-overs. For Malick, the changes of scenes are mere beads on a rosary—they are all interconnected thematically and he wishes to make the connection more obvious by bringing in the voices of the next scene before the existing scene disappears.
|Wonder of natural beauty set off against human beings again in twilight|
What difference is Malick gradually introducing to cinema you might ask? In To the Wonder, the entire film is a visual poem with very few sequences where people speak to each other on screen. Regular dialogues are rare and minimal. If characters speak, it is only to provide a clue to what follows. For instance, the child Tatiana asks her mother Marina (Olga Kurylenko) in the Paris apartment, “Why are you unhappy?” The response to the on-screen question is typical of Malick—a silent street shot of Paris from a window in an apartment, suggesting the unhappiness of Marina awaiting some affirmative response from her lover Neil. This is followed up with visual scenes of happiness with Marina gamboling with joy outdoors with Tatiana and Neil after Neil invites them to Oklahoma. Happiness is emphasized through body movements as Marina and Tatiana frolic just as the characters in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg did. Unhappiness is depicted visually when Marina is sitting on the floor trying to play a musical instrument. Interestingly, the few instances where there is conventional dialogue, it is between Tatiana (Marina’s daughter) and Neil (Ben Affleck) and later during the interactions of the Catholic priest Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) tending his flock in his parish and in a prison. For this critic, the only few significant “conventional” dialogs in the entire film were of Tatiana rejecting Neil as her “father“ and Quintana’s interactions with a black parishioner on “light” versus “spiritual light” and an elderly white woman parishioner who holds the priest’s hands and stating that she will “pray for him” to the poor man’s amazement. Almost all others spoken lines in the film involve a single statement or a rhetorical question followed by a visual answer. Neil and Marina even fight verbally but the sound is muted and the fight is captured visually by the indirect effect on Tatiana listening to the squabble! Malick is very deliberate in what dialogues need to be heard.
To appreciate To the Wonder there are a few Malickian keys that unlock the true wonder of the film. First, Malick’s recent films seem connected in a unique manner. The Thin Red Line began with a shot of a flame in darkness. The flame reappears when the Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel) confronts the imprisoned AWOL First Sgt Welsh (Sean Penn) and later when Welsh asks Witt about believing in “the beautiful light” and Witt responding “I still see a spark in you.” The visual flame was further explained in the film to the viewer by the spoken words of Pvt. Bell (Ben Chaplin) “Love. Where does it come from? Who lit this flame in us? No war can put it out, conquer it. I was a prisoner. You set me free.” For Malick, divine love is introduced in his films by the flame. In Malick’s The Tree of Life, the flame is used as punctuation. It appears at the start of the film and then again when the transformation of the adult Jack (Sean Penn) is signified by the lighting of the blue candle. In To the Wonder, the first spoken lines are those of Marina “Newborn. I open my eyes. I melt into the eternal light. A spark. I fall into the flame. You brought me out of the shadows. You lifted me from the ground. Brought me back to life.” To those uninitiated to Malick’s cinema, these words would be a monologue of Marina representing love with Neil. That would be too simplistic an interpretation of the words. It is actually a spiritual rumination. And this aspect can only be accepted by a viewer who accepts God or accept cinema that deals with God. The final words spoken in the film are also a spiritual statement from Marina “Love that loves us. Thank you.” Again to the un-initiated Malick viewer, this crucial monologue of Marina could also be relating to Neil, but it is not. It is an intense personal conversation with God. The entire plot of the film falls into place, if we note the last words, especially the epilogue following Mariana’s second departure to France followed by the wild horses running free and wild in Oklahoma---all visual clues for the viewer to understand the ending of the tale.
The film, ostensibly a love story of Neil and Marina, is structured on four key sacraments of the Church—baptism, marriage, confession and the Holy Communion. There is no baptism: we only hear the opening words of being “newborn” when the”child” in the film is actually a grown-up Marina who is entering a second marital relationship. There are several mentions, visual and aural, of marriage and how Marina, a Catholic, is worried about the aftermath of her first broken marriage and implications it has on her spiritual life (recall the brief statement she makes to Fr. Quintana on her arrival in Oklahoma, prior to her second marriage, on the sacraments.) Then she is tempted to commit sin within marriage and there is a subsequent confession (to both the priest and to her husband separately). Marina significantly receives the Holy Communion after her confession from the priest.
Malick is urging his viewers to study the parallels of Marina’s life as she struggles to discover true love while searching in vain for a resolute response from Neil with the crisis of faith of Fr Quintana as he tends to the contrasting spiritual needs of sick and dying members of his Parish, the rich members of his Parish who are only concerned about adding facilities to the existing Church, of convicts in jails who see his visits as a glimmer of hope of salvation. And yet the priest rues “Everywhere You are present, and yet I can’t see You. You are within me, around me, and I have no experience of You. Not as I once did.” Malick seems to be revisiting the theological doubts of the priest in Ingmar Bergman’s 1963 classic film Winter Light. A moot question for the viewer would be why does Malick introduce the priest into this cinematic tale? The priest helps put into context the importance of the blessed sacraments that Malick is discussing in Marina’s life—marriage, confession of sin and absolution though Holy Communion. The movie is centred on Marina not the priest. (In Malick’s earlier film, The Tree of Life, a priest was included to provide a sermon on bereavement with a touch of Kierkegaardian philosophy “Do you trust in God? Job too was close to the Lord.”) Priests in Malick’s films are not ornaments—they add to the theological debate running through the length of the films. Regular Malick followers will note a startling departure—the priest is for the first time is a Roman Catholic. In To the Wonder, the priest serves a similar function to the one in The Tree of Life—to give prescient spiritual meaning to Neil’s actions with his sermon “To choose is to commit yourself and to commit yourself is to run the risk of failure. Forgiveness he (Jesus) never denies us. The man who makes a mistake can repent. But the man who hesitates, who does nothing, who buries his talent in the earth, with him he can do nothing.” Neil defers commitment and when he does so, he walks on a tight rope from which he could easily fall off.
Spirituality is not limited to priests in Malick’s films—it pervades the few spoken lines. Jane (Rachel McAdams) speaks of losing a child and her father consoling her and asking to read Romans, a book in the Bible, and Jane speaks the specific lines to Neil “And we know that all things work together for good (Romans 8:28). He believed that and prayed with me”
|Human beings set against a man-made wonder and silt deposits surrounding the monument|
There is yet another parameter that can be used to appreciate the film To the Wonder: this is the element of earth and sky, what is below us and what is above us just as Fr Quintana’s sermon mentions “burying one’s talent in the earth.” The unusual Mont Saint Michel is a deliberately chosen location by Malick to fit into the tale. The 11th century abbey and church is built on an island on the French coast with formidable architecture considering its natural foundations. It is today a UNESCO World Heritage site that is called the Wonder. Malick uses visuals of climbing the steps and the unusual and dangerous silt (caused to accumulate by short-sighted human decisions) near the sea front surrounding the heritage site reacting to the sea tides as recurring symbols of God in the heavens (a repeat of The Tree of Life) and heavenly love as opposed to human love on earth. The film is peppered with voice-overs that refer time and again to the sky and heights as counterbalance to the polluted earth and waters below our feet. Visually there are shots of the sky through trees, of birds just as there are shots of turtles swimming underwater. There are sufficient visual and verbal suggestions that we on earth are polluted (as the soil of the Oklahoma town) and imperfect and that we need to let the light of goodness shine on earth. The shore line of Mont St Michel with the abbey in the background reappears at the end of the film to highlight the difference in heights subtly introduced time and again throughout the film in different contexts. Every visual shot reinforces Malick’s total appreciation of divine love, which for Malick comes from above but can be found below as well. The script is Malick’s own and one can guess there are considerable autobiographical touches to the tale, by the mere fact that Malick once lived in the town of Barnesville where the movie is largely shot.
Just as The Tree of Life was a paean to the love of a man for his dead younger brother and for his mother, To the Wonder is a paean to the love of a woman for her husband. In both films, the reassuring touch of hands embellishes this idea. In The Tree of Life there was the evocative scene of the child reaching out to its elder brother’s hand. In To the Wonder a similar affection is alluded to as future man and wife hold hands in the train. Both films use images and emotion of love between individuals to study and appreciate divine love. “We were made to see You” says Fr Quintana in a parting monologue towards the end of the film. The pollution and the filth around the town is set off against the beautiful natural unpolluted visuals of birds in flight and flowing water.
|A poster that tells a tale: a symbolic fold in the middle, suggesting the Neil-Jane interlude|
Having seen the entire body of Malick’s feature films, The Tree of Life, The Thin Red Line and Days of Heaven are three films that tower over all the others in substance and scope of subject matter, while each work of Malick will provide additional satisfaction with repeat viewings, just as we never tire of reading monumental works of literature again and again. Malick is indeed America’s most awesome living filmmaker.