I. The Ascetic Synopsis
The nice thing about Terrence Malick is you can summarize the ascetic plot of his films without really spoiling the content. In “To the Wonder,” it goes something like this….There are two people; they don’t have names except in the credits. Perhaps they do not deserve names. They are a brother and sister of sorts for they are children of God. God has made them one another’s helper and mate. Even if they are not mates in the sense of the covenant of marriage, they do share an emotional connection and a sexuality that is sublime, perhaps waiting to become sacred in the bonds of marriage. She is a dancer and he is an engineer. They possess beauty and intellect. They have been put in Eden, a place called Paris. It is a city with museums, libraries, parks, coffeehouses, and joyous streets. When that is not enough for them, they are brought to Normandy, where they tread the soft beach at Manche with water surrounding them to remind them they have been claimed by their heavenly Father for a very long time. And from treading the soft merciful water, they are allowed to walk on dry land and ascend the high place to the wonder (Mont Saint- Michel.) Here they put God to the test and cast themselves down.
They find themselves exiled to a place called Oklahoma, though God is merciful and they are still afforded one another and the beauty of creation. But in spite of all that is given to them, their interiors are stone. They are wretched indecisive cowards. Malick has little use for words, so when he does use them, you can bet they make a point. In “To the Wonder, that point is to tell us God has little tolerance for indecision, particularly as it concerns love. (To be clear here, Malick never tells us which types of love are right, though for those who see this film asking if it has a pro-marriage or pro-family bias would be a good starting point for discussion.)
The woman returns to Eden, but it is no longer paradise. The man is again given the opportunity to have a helper and mate, but his emotional poverty reduces it to nothingness.
All the while a priest walks the streets of Bartlesville Oklahoma introducing us to those for whom God has a preference: a man with Down’s Syndrome, an addict, poor children, prisoners, and a chained up dog. All of this occurs while the good earth is being ravished by human greed that sees the water poisoned and paradise paved over.
The woman finds herself miserable and the man from a sense of obligation brings her back to Oklahoma and marries her. Here they find themselves in that place where covenant can be ruined as much as the creation. After an act of infidelity, a pornographic attempt at again finding wonder, she starts to search for the love God would have her own and we are allowed to hear her interior monologue. That love may very well be one that transcends physicality, feeling and anything earthly. In the end we are left with something a little more than hope and less than faith that she has found this thing.
II. The Morality of the Matter
“To the Wonder” is Malick’s most overtly religious movie. It is also his most accusatory and serves as a modern improperia. We have been given one another and a beautiful home and we deny one and destroy the other. We have been exiled, but through love, the Garden gate has been burst open inviting us to again enter. Yet very often we refuse the invitation. Perhaps it is because we cannot do such a thing on our own, for this is only possible with God.
Malick hesitates to call on God by name, however, even if he seeks to evidence His presence. The evidence is found not so much in belief as in the experience of joy with another or in the care one gives others and perhaps the good earth and the loving unbeliever experiences God more than the unloving believer. The sad tragedy of the matter is the believer should be the one who can get it right and yet too often fails to do so. For Malick, who cut his teeth in academic philosophy, the truth of Kierkegaard holds true, that the refusal of love has no counterbalance. A faith without the work of love is dead.
In the words of Malick’s nameless priest, “you shall love whether you like it or not.”
To the Wonder Questions…..they make sense when you see the movie
- Is this film pro-marriage and/or pro family?
- In what instances is sexuality sublime and when is it profane?
- Why is it only one person, a child, is given a name?
- Does this film justify the notion that religious life should be a celibate one?
- What is the courage to love and to be loved?
- What role does free will play in our lives?
- Does God have a preference for the poor and downtrodden?
- Can divine madness lead us to the divine?
- What are we to make of the differences between Malick’s women? Is it significant one is an “exotic” brunette Catholic European and the other a “plain” blonde Protestant American?
- What about the contrast between the geography of France and the Great Plains?
- What is the significance of water, flatlands, and mountains?
- Do most men need women to lead them to the divine?
- Why is it Malick’s men are sullen and expressionless and his women dance?
- What is the significance that the priest recites the Breastplate of St. Patrick?
- Can love be commanded?