Terrence Malick (2012)
THE FILMS OF TARENCE MALICK, or at least his most recent ones, are perhaps more admired than loved. I’ve struggled through the longueurs of late Malick, but at the same time I’m aware that my brain has been conditioned by Hollywood conventions. Malick takes running leaps off the high dive and sometimes he belly flops. His films probably include too many lovely women dancing away from the camera. I for one find the kindly velociraptor in The Tree of Life a bit much.
Malick’s departure from conventional narrative clearly constitutes the biggest obstacle to a deeper and more widespread appreciation of his work. The films feature stunning visuals supplemented by whispered snatches of interior monologue and conversation. This goes against the way our minds have been wired by Hollywood, but it also conveys an enormous advantage, maybe even a breakthrough of sorts. That’s because conventional narrative—especially in these ideologically charged times—tends to focus too much on subject matter or “issues.” That approach, in turn, lends itself a little too easily to high-minded moralizing. Even if you grant that recent movies have confronted urgent issues and delivered needed lessons, you have to wonder if something more important about filmmaking as an art is being lost.
That’s why I find hope in Malick’s craft. There’s no doubt that his works, too, are intensely moral. Indeed, some of them seem just this side of medieval allegory. But the net effect of his privileging poetry over narrative is to counteract the heavy-handedness of moralism—the phenomenon that Keats described when he said we hate art that has “a palpable design upon us.”
The Malick film that has burrowed most deeply into my heart is one that has been either reviled or dismissed as mediocre: To the Wonder. It lacks the nostalgic appeal and epic sweep of The Tree of Life and the nature-worship of The New World, but as a sustained attempt to explore the nature of divine and human love—the differences and similarities between eros and agape—I find it one of his most coherent and moving films.
To the Wonder begins in the heady intoxication of a love affair. Neil, an American played with granitic minimalism by Ben Affleck, has traveled to Paris and fallen in love with a French woman, Marina (Olga Kurylenko), who has a daughter from a previous relationship. As the film begins the couple is traveling by train. All of the initial shots are made with a cell phone camera, as if to emphasize the profound subjectivity—the total immersion experience—that is falling in love. Since these are adults, not adolescents, one gets the impression that this moment is also tinged by grateful surprise: theirs is a rediscovery of love after resignation and disillusionment.
Most of these cell phone shots are taken from crazy angles, as if love upends us, which of course it does. The first word of the film is “Newborn.” The quasi-biblical language that follows draws extensively on the tradition of eros as an analogy for agape—human, romantic love as a metaphor for God’s love—a tradition that goes back to the Song of Songs. “You brought me out of the shadows,” Marina whispers. “You brought me back to life.”
The camera becomes more objective when the couple arrive at their destination, Mont Saint Michel, that iconic, tiny island off the coast of France atop which sits an ancient Benedictine monastery. Here the lovers are more subdued and contemplative. A sign that reads À la Merveille (“to the wonder,” or more accurately “the marvel”) points them toward the elegant cloister at the heart of the monastery.
Once again, Malick’s symbolism has deep roots in Christian culture. The hortus conclusus, or enclosed garden, at the center of the cloister represents the Blessed Virgin, who encloses the wonder of the incarnate love of God in her womb. Malick makes this connection clear with a brief flash of the famous medieval unicorn tapestry, in which Christ is allegorically present as the wild unicorn tamed when he willingly lays his head in the lap of the Virgin.
Marina and her daughter follow Neil back to a very different sort of place: Bartlesville, Oklahoma. It’s a stark landscape, and one might be tempted to call it drab, from Neil’s generic tract home to the urban center and its impoverished neighborhoods. But just when you think the moral is that “Bartlesville is not Paris” and that love must fade in such circumstances, Malick reveals the poetry of the place. There are scenes of local color that feel unrehearsed and quietly dignified, from the almost medieval pageantry of a local parade to a park at night illuminated by fairy lights to a field full of stolid buffalo.
Yet love does fade—or at least fray—under the pressure of circumstance. Without the emotional support of any decisive commitment from Neil, Marina and her daughter begin to feel stranded in Bartlesville. Marina turns for help to the local Catholic priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a Spaniard who is equally out of place. His sermons continue the theme of human and divine love. When he speaks of Christ’s relationship to the church being like that of a husband to a wife, he concludes: “[Christ] does not find her lovely. He makes her lovely.”
Father Quintana is not simply a mouthpiece for theological wisdom. He has his own struggles, including the sense that God is absent. He hesitates in fear and self-consciousness before he knocks on the doors of the poor, the unemployed, and the drug addicted. One elderly woman says to him: “I’m going to pray you receive the gift of joy…because you’re so unhappy.”
Neil’s job offers a parallel to Father Quintana’s, for he too is a priest of sorts. Neil goes out to industrial sites and poor neighborhoods with scientific instruments to test for toxins in the soil and water. He, too, ministers to people’s needs, hears their complaints, and promises them help. As Neil strides through neighborhoods he is joined by locals in something like a procession, reminiscent of Christ and his disciples. But adept though Neil may be at finding toxins in the land, he cannot see what’s sickening his own soul—a refusal to follow love’s logic toward total commitment.
Later, Father Quintana says in another sermon: “We fear to choose. Jesus insists on choice. The one thing he condemns utterly is avoiding the choice. To choose is to commit yourself, and to commit yourself is to run the risk of failure, the risk of sin, the risk of betrayal. But Jesus can deal with all of those. Forgiveness he never denies us. The man who makes a mistake can repent. But the man who hesitates, who does nothing—with him, [Christ] can do nothing.”
Further dark complications ensue, as if to illustrate the words failure, sin, and betrayal. Neil encounters Jane (Rachel McAdams), a woman he knew in his youth, and they enter into a brief, tortured affair while Marina is away in France.
But late in the film something else happens, unobtrusively—one of the most astonishing things I’ve seen in a film. Interspersed between scenes featuring Neil and Marina, we see Father Quintana out on his rounds, including a visit to a prison.
Then two things happen, without fanfare. One is that the locals who have appeared in the background now begin to speak out and, for brief moments, to take center stage. A man with Down syndrome says to Father Quintana: “We need people like you here in Bartlesville.” A ravaged, deformed woman, whose body has been nearly destroyed by abuse or drugs or both, speaks of her suffering. Suddenly you realize that in addition to the Spanish priest, Neil himself is in the room with her, as if he were shadowing Father Quintana. His presence is not explained; he is simply there, observing.
I know that Terrence Malick is not the first director to mix non-actors and actors in a film, but in the context of the moment, the juxtapositions here are startling and poignant. It is a deconstruction of the fictive world of the film itself, with its gorgeous, celebrity movie stars, a tearing down of the wall between art and life. Like a Baroque sculpture or painting that seems to invade the viewer’s space, implicating you in the story being told, Malick’s use of these lost and least removes the comforting, protective distance we often bring to our experience of cinema.
“Love is not only a feeling,” Father Quintana says. “Love is a duty…. Love is a command. And you say, ‘I can’t command my emotions, they come and go like clouds.’ To that, Christ says, ‘You shall love…whether you like it or not….’ You fear your love has died. It perhaps is waiting to be transformed into something higher.”
This transformation, from eros to agape, has taken place on the screen, not in spite of failure, sin, and betrayal but in and through the space they hollow out in the heart.
“What is this love that loves us?” Marina asks early in the film. What indeed.
Gregory Wolfe is the editor of Image and senior fellow at the Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture at Seattle University. He edits a literary imprint, Slant Books.