Souls in Need: The Journey "To the Wonder"


"You shall love. Whether you like it or not."

So intones Javier Bardem over music by Andy Quin in the trailer for To the Wonder (out now in select theaters and On Demand). But critics don't exactly agree with the sentiment - at least, not when it comes to Terrence Malick's films. Many didn't love The Tree of Life; some thought it was downright awful. (We couldn't disagree more.) Others who found the phenomenological lens and philosophical whispers of that last film only slightly offputting are now lambasting his less ambitious, more ambiguous follow-up. (One person at the premiere even said that To the Wonder "makes The Tree of Life look like Transformers"...the star, Ben Affleck.) Both films were booed at film festivals. There's little love lost between Malick and his critics. Whether they like it or not.

But at least one critic showered To the Wonder with affection, after including The Tree of Life in his list of the ten greatest films ever made: Roger Ebert. And it was the last film he would ever review.

To the Wonder follows Neil (Ben Affleck) and Mariana (Olga Kurylenko), although I'm not quite sure we ever hear their names, or need to. In typical Malick fashion, the aim of To the Wonder is not so much to tell us a conventional story, but to capture lives in transit. It plumbs the depth of each moment, with elegant cinematography and poetic voice-overs bouncing from French to English to Spanish to Italian.

But there is enough to grab on to: we open on the two in Paris, madly in love; and anyone who has been madly in love will immediately connect with the rapturous and careless joy we see in these scenes, as the two cavort around downtown Paris and wander the Mont St. Michel monastery hand-in-hand.

But the honeymoon ends; Neil goes back to his native Oklahoma, and invites Mariana and her daughter Tatiana to live with him. What follows is a tug-of-war of human love between very distinct archetypes. Neil, stoic and silent, becomes increasingly glum, indecisive, faithless; Mariana, on the other hand, remains playful, impulsive, and ever-hopeful. The two separate, re-connect, and separate again; fight, make love, and fight again.

In the midst of their tumultuous relationship, Neil re-connects with Jane (Rachel McAdams), who has seen her own share of suffering in life. She and Neil have a brief but less electric romance, and it's clear that Neil's heart isn't in it in quite the same way.

Even as a Malick fan, I found myself occasionally groaning with his critics here, who wail and gnash their teeth at all the hay wandering and buffalo roaming. But my impatience passed; the slow-down ceases as McAdams exits, whispering a profound line: "I thought I knew you. Now I don't think you ever were. What we had was nothing. You made it into nothing. Pleasure. Lust."

What makes To the Wonder especially unique is its embedding of these stories in a broader world of spiritual wisdom and searching. Javier Bardem plays a local Catholic priest, Father Quintana, in the grip of a kind of dark night of the soul, much like the lead in Bresson's classic Diary of a Country Priest. He ministers to the sick, the imprisoned, the disabled, the drug-addicted, the abandoned, the lonely; he dispenses the sacraments; he counsels his married parishioners - including, at different times, Neil and Mariana. But all the while he feels the absence of God in his life. One elderly lady prays that he feels "the gift of joy," saying he seems "so unhappy." But his state is worse than unhappy. He laments, internally: "Everywhere you're present, and still I can't see you. You're within me. Around me, and I have no experience of you. Not as I once did. Why don't I hold on to what I've found? My heart is cold. Hard."

Still, Quintana persists, trusting in the slow work of God, and passing profound theological truths to his parishioners:

Man is in a revolt against God. The prophet Isaiah saw in the breakdown of his marriage the spiritual infidelity of his people. In that broken marriage, we see the pattern of our world. We wish to live within the safety of the laws. 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, who buries his talent in the earth, with him he can do nothing.

Quintana also lays out St. Paul's description of Christian marriage in Ephesians, which contrasts sharply with the above description of inaction and infidelity. "The husband is to love his wife as Christ loves the church, and give his life to her. He does not find her lovely, he makes her lovely. But there is a grace that comes in such a marriage." The fullest expression of this idea comes in a sermon from which the trailer was pieced together:

You shall love, whether you like it or not. Love is not only a feeling, love is a duty. 'You shall love.' 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 say, 'Christ said that'—what do you say? And what you say, does it come from God within? Answer that which is of God. To commit yourself is to run the risk of failure, the risk of betrayal. But a man who makes a mistake can repent. You fear your love has died; it perhaps is waiting to be transformed into something higher. Awaken the love, the divine presence, which sleeps in each man, each woman. Know each other in that love that never changes, which is not like a cloud in the sky, gone by afternoon.

Rarely do we see a faith so raw and believable in movies; a faith that's not comically easy and pliable, but filled with struggle, passion, darkness, and hope. But how does it connect to the story of Neil and Mariana? Why is it here?

Critics have found a lot to hate in To the Wonder, but Quintana and his story have, without a doubt, drawn the most ire. Dana Stevens at Slate calls it "the movie’s weakest element." NPR critic David Edelstein writes: "I have a confession, Father: I laughed every time Bardem appeared." Kurt Loder at Reason.com laments: "As Quintana shlumps around town muttering to himself, we begin to wish he would join Jane and just get out of the way...well before the movie dribbles to its conclusion, we have joined Father Quintana in asking, 'Where are you leading us.' God has little to offer him in reply, and the director has nothing for us." David Denby of the New Yorker is even more sardonic: "The film is nominally about the failure of marriage, a state of being blessed by a depressed priest (Javier Bardem), as one of Christ's great gifts." With Quintana, Malick's critics see the worst of the auteur they love to hate: whispering, wheat-wandering, and twirling, brought to a fever pitch in that mortal sin of sentimentality: religious faith.

One critic, at least, wasn't so negative. Roger Ebert's review of To the Wonder - the last review he penned before his death - is worth quoting at length:

As the film opened, I wondered if I was missing something. As it continued, I realized many films could miss a great deal. Although he uses established stars, Malick employs them in the sense that the French director Robert Bresson intended when he called actors "models." Ben Affleck here isn't the star of "Argo" but a man, often silent, intoxicated by love and then by loss. Bardem, as a priest far from home, made me realize as never before the loneliness of the unmarried clergy. Wandering in his empty church in the middle of the day, he is a forlorn figure, crying out in prayer and need to commune with his Jesus.

A more conventional film would have assigned a plot to these characters and made their motivations more clear. Malick, who is surely one of the most romantic and spiritual of filmmakers, appears almost naked here before his audience, a man not able to conceal the depth of his vision.

"Well," I asked myself, "why not?" Why must a film explain everything? Why must every motivation be spelled out? Aren't many films fundamentally the same film, with only the specifics changed? Aren't many of them telling the same story? Seeking perfection, we see what our dreams and hopes might look like. We realize they come as a gift through no power of our own, and if we lose them, isn't that almost worse than never having had them in the first place?

There will be many who find "To the Wonder" elusive and too effervescent. They'll be dissatisfied by a film that would rather evoke than supply. I understand that, and I think Terrence Malick does, too. But here he has attempted to reach more deeply than that: to reach beneath the surface, and find the soul in need.

"To the Wonder" was the last film
Ebert reviewed. He gave 3.5/4 stars.
Ebert gave the film 3.5 out of 4 stars - an amazingly positive review, given that the film has raked in a measly 42% on Rotten Tomatoes. After sending the review to his editor, Ebert sent a follow-up email days before dying, and asked: "Did the review of 'To the Wonder' make sense to you? Such a strange movie."

The notoriously cloistered Malick released a public statement, acknowledging the review and calling Ebert "a man of kindness and generosity." Affleck, too, was shocked and honored, saying: "To have this be the last movie that he reviewed and to have it viewed through this sort of transcendental lens of a man at the end of his life is as important as anything that's ever happened around movies in my career."

What Affleck says is interesting, and raises the question: do scales of cynicism, which fall from the eyes of the dying, blind our best critics? Why do they, and the little cynical voice within us, want to hate To the Wonder so much?

Faced with something that smells of sweetness or simplicity, our reaction is to scoff. We're too impatient, ironic, acerbic, and petulant to be bothered with it. But could it be because it's uncomfortable? Because it's too in our face, too human?

Stanley Fish wrote a fantastic article on Les Misérables that argues just this point. In it, he quotes David Foster Wallace on sincerity, irony, and rebellion:

The next real literary 'rebels' in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the "Oh how banal." To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. 

Does this not sound like a Malick review? Outdated, naive, quaint, sentimental, melodramatic, soft. Malick risks these criticisms, and I'm sure he knows it (though we'd never know that he knows it). But there is something rebellious now in that risk, and I hope moviegoers sense it and are attracted to it.

But this brings us back to the ire for the Quintana character. Is Malick so loathed by critics because his films are schmaltzy, or because they are bordering on prayer? Something tells me it's the latter that really drives them up the wall, and - on Wallace's reading - makes them yawn and snicker exaggeratedly. Even critics who praise the film - like Richard Brody in The New Yorker - argue that Malick's worldview comes "not from the doctrine of the Catholic Church but from its aesthetic." "Outdated," "naive," and "sentimental" pale in comparison to the ultimate criticism: "religious."

But Brody's right: the film isn't doctrinal or "religious" in a conventional sense. Malick isn't thoughtlessly proselytizing, and Quintana is just one character's voice. But he's also wrong: Malick is not merely concerned with religious aesthetics or a sort of pantheistic frolic. Instead, like Bergman and Bresson before him, he is pointedly and poignantly underscoring those theological questions that haunt us, especially after tragedies like the one in Boston this week: "Why do you turn your back? All I see is destruction. Failure." Films like To the Wonder tap into fears, hopes, desires that transcend our own capability to master them. They are not just aesthetically beautiful, but philosophical. But does it end there?

Quintana articulates the key line that I think really allows us to unlock the film: "There is love that is like a stream that can go dry when rain no longer feeds it," he says. "But there is a love that is like a spring coming up from the earth. The first is human love, the second is divine love and has its source above." We see Neil and Mariana struggling to attain human love, glimpsing at the second, while Quintana struggles to attain the second, only briefly tempted by the first. They fluctuate between successes and failures; but they can't help but love.

Thomas Merton's lecture on St. Bernard of Clairveaux provides insight into this human need:

Man's nature is to love...no matter how man loves, from the moment that he loves - whether he's loving rightly or wrongly - he's doing that thing for which he was created. And if he's doing it wrong, well that's just too bad, because it means that his whole creation becomes meaningless. But if he's doing it right, then the whole reason for his creation is fulfilled. But whether he loves rightly or wrongly, he's got to love, because he's made for love, and he has to love. The only thing that there is a choice between - it's not whether he should love or not love - it's whether he should love rightly or wrongly, cause he can't help loving.

This is the crux of To the Wonder that connects the characters and grounds the story: that love is real, and we were made for it. But Neil and Mariana, who aim at loving what's below, are doomed to failure, infidelity, self-absorption, isolation - a bleak and frustrated existence. Mariana (who's often waving at the sky) tries but fails to draw heavenly moments down to earth; Neil (who's often trudging through the mud) tries but fails to pull earth up to heaven. "You have to struggle with yourself," Quintana tells Neil. "You have to struggle with your own..." Doubt? Pain? Darkness? No - he sees the spiritual chasm between them, and the false love that Neil pursues. "Strength." It's Neil's strength that misleads him, that keeps his love from becoming "something higher."

Quintana, on the other hand, has offered his life as a gift - and when he is weak, then he is strong. We see in his final monologue (a partial recitation of St. Patrick's Breastplate prayer) the voice of joy, which knows its goal is infinite; which knows that the "love that loves us" is our only path to a love which fulfills us.

Where are you leading me? Teach us where to seek you.
Christ, be 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 in the heart.
Thirsting. We thirst.

Malick's great downfall, his inability to connect with many moviegoers and critics, might stem from overindulgence and overediting: at times, To the Wonder does feel a bit too "elusive and effervescent," as Ebert put it. (Too "French" about sums it up.) His decisions about what to tell us and what not to tell us can leave us in a state of stagnation or starvation, especially at the ambiguous ending.

But his undeniable virtue as a filmmaker is the depth of his vision. It's not horizontal, like a problem to solve or a plot to unfold, but vertical, like a moment to experience, a mystery to dwell in. In an age flooded with cheap, easy tricks, Malick is multivalent, especially with regard to the infinitely expanding realm of faith and prayer. He resurrects what Faulkner called "problems of the spirit," "problems of the human heart in conflict with itself." Ebert was right: in To the Wonder, we see souls like ours: souls in need. The characters seem to be adrift, thirsting for love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness. They get them, then lose them again; just like us. They dwell in the mundane, but constantly see and want to see something more; just like us.

Such a vision is moving, perplexing, inspiring. It brilliantly captures what is especially human about us; but that's not necessarily easy to watch, or fun. It won't be a hit. Thomas Merton, in Raids on the Unspeakable, might as well have been writing a letter to Malick when he wrote: "Be human in this most inhuman of ages; guard the image of man for it is the image of God. You agree? Good. Then go with my blessing. But I warn you, do not expect to make many friends."


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