Permeated by a sense of the sacred, Terrence Malick’s latest film points us to the transience of all things. Appropriately titled To the Wonder, the film has Malick’s stamp written all over it: Philosophical voice-overs uttered in hushed tones to a haunting orchestral soundtrack, panoramic displays of the physical beauty of nature, a story that features little dialogue, and an untranslatable feeling for the spiritual. Released just two years after his critically acclaimed “The Tree of Life,” Malick introduces us to the main characters immediately but they feel more like symbols than real people and we never really get to know and understand the “why” of their actions.
Neil (Ben Affleck) is an environmental inspector traveling in Europe when he meets Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a divorcée who is living in Paris with her ten year-old daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline). As the film opens, we hear Olga’s voice-overs turn the world into inner space: “Newborn, I open my eyes. I melt into the eternal night. A spark. You brought me out of the shadows. You lifted me off the ground. You brought me back to life.” “What is this love that loves us? It comes from nowhere. From all around. The sky. You, cloud. You love me too.” One is unclear if she is talking to Neil or to God.
Visiting Mount St. Michel, Neil and Marina climb to the top of the abbey “to the Wonder” where she sees a world “forever at peace.” The camera then caresses them in the mud of the beach as they express their love playfully — glancing, laughing, gesturing, and kissing with freedom and sensuality, “two wings of the same spirit.” They go to Paris and walk among its fountains, rivers, and monuments. Olga twirls like a ballet dancer with uncommon grace but Neil is expressionless, stolid, and impenetrable. When they go back to Neil’s home in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, however, their relationship takes a different shape, existing in a stultifying environment of polluted water, cookie-cutter houses furnished sparingly, and the feeling, expressed cogently by Tatiana, that “there’s something missing,” perhaps mirroring Malick’s childhood in the Southwest.
Sadly, the “something missing” begins to be filled in by quarreling, lack of communication, and frustration. Like the local Spanish-speaking priest, Father Quintana, played by a soulful Javier Bardem, they are searching for something that seems just beyond their grasp. Marina seeks solace with the priest but, like the Curé d’Ambricourt in “Diary of a Country Priest,” he is filled with self-doubt and a sense of failure. He tells God “Everywhere you’re present and I can’t even see you.” He asks “Show me how to love you” and, as he tends to the poor, the addicts, the prisoners, and the sick, recites the moving words from St. Patrick’s Breastplate:
“Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise…”
He gives sermons to a half-empty church, hears confessions, gives communion, but the look on his face prompts an elderly woman to pray for him so he can “achieve the gift of joy.” Father Quintana’s alienation reflects the crisis of Neil and Marina whose conflicts result in the desire for freedom. Marina goes back to France when her visa expires, but experiences a new loneliness in Europe and returns to Oklahoma where Neil has reunited with an old friend, Jane, (Rachel McAdams), now a rancher raising buffaloes.
Enigmatic, distancing, and often infuriating, To the Wonder does not have the immediate impact of “The Tree of Life,” yet in its own way is a meditation on love just as mysterious and profound. A film that takes place “in a realm which no word has ever entered,” it is a work that suggests, implies, and evokes rather than commands, forcing us to confront how we connect to ourselves and the world around us, to be with the images without trying to figure them out, to weave our way in and out of the silences, to let go into the acceptance of not knowing, and to be aware of the wonder around us and bathe in its light.