“To the Wonder”: A Reaction
The Tree of Life may be the finest film I have ever seen. While I often heard it provoke a particular question (“what the hell was Tree of Life all about?”), this tended to reflect, to me at least, more of the viewer than what was being viewed. Having now been brought into contact with To the Wonder, the first film of Terrence Malick since The Tree of Life, I find myself in an uncomfortable position: I could answer those questioning The Tree of Life, but I have much more difficulty responding to those who, introduced to the struggles of Neil and Marina and Fr. Quintana, ask “who the hell cares?”
I found To the Wonder — and I hate to write this — unable to initially facilitate an empathic response in me. While there were moments of exception and while my empathy for these characters has since increased, it just seemed something was missing. This could say more about me than it does the film, and because Malick creates his pictures with beauty and infuses them with a depth of insight, I do not want to dissuade interested persons.
To the Wonder surrounds the search of persons for love. A sense exists that while the experience of love elevates, this elevation accentuates just how drawn down one can feel when he or she does not experience love in his or her interactions. Marina captures this range: “What are we when we are there?” she asks of the elevation experienced in love. Which — being elevated by love or drawn down in its seeming absence — is true?
The words of Father Quintana, of which the viewer is afforded glimpses, are thought-provoking and reflect the preoccupation of this priest with experiencing the love of God. His desire for God parallels something of the desire two women, Marina and Jane, have for the love of Neil and thus while Fr. Quintana might seem to exist at the periphery of To the Wonder, thematically he does not.
Stating that “the one who loves less is the one who is stronger,” Fr. Quintana counsels Neil to struggle with his strength. A sort of perceived strength, after all, can inhibit love. Neil so struggles to let himself be loved that, on one occasion, Marina asks him “what are you afraid of?” My impression is that Neil, because he does not sufficiently struggle with his supposed strength, creates in Marina a sense that nothing she can do or be for him is of value. Jane, having experienced similar affective limitations in Neil, has separated herself from him and Marina too has motivation to search for love elsewhere. For much of To the Wonder, it is not apparent that Neil might be able to say, as Marina can, that “if you love me, there’s nothing else I need.”
To encourage someone to struggle with his or her perceived strength is good counsel, but behind the words of Fr. Quintana is his own inability to be impacted by them. The viewer hears the inner wonderings of this priest — wonderings about whether he will ever experience God again — but these words are cast against his standing in a dark room while a homeless woman, whom he can see, pounds on his door. The priest preaches to persons to “awaken the divine presence which sleeps in each man and each woman”, but for all his service of others, Fr. Quintana struggles to even acknowledge the existence of (let alone awaken) that presence of God. Against Marina who wonders why people come back down after having been elevated by the experience of love, Fr. Quintana struggles to discover the love of his God who, long before, had situated himself in the downtrodden (“just as you did to the least of these, you did to me” [Matthew 25:40]).
Because of his remarkable abilities as a filmmaker, it is easy to forget that Malick is a philosopher by training. He is a graduate of Harvard, pursued doctoral studies at Oxford, and taught philosophy at the MIT. In 1969, Northwestern University Press published his translation of a work by Martin Heidegger. Heidegger, like any good existentialist, emphasizes becoming as essential to living with authenticity. Possibilities exist before the human person, and into some the human person must step. Fr. Quintana emphasizes this sense of discovery through his lens as a Christian. He observes that many prefer safety. Choosing is dangerous: It “is to run the risk of failure, and the risk of sin and of betrayal, but Jesus can deal with all of these.”
In To the Wonder, we see persons who, in search of love, risk and refuse to risk. Both represent choices and both contribute to the quality of life one enjoys. To persons uncertain of the effect their choices will have, Fr. Quintana preaches “you fear your love has died. It perhaps is waiting to be transformed into something higher.”
I also write at Musings on Film where this post first appeared on 11 May 2013.