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Searching for God in Malick’s ”To the Wonder”

April 16, 2015


(WARNING: Spoilers within!)

Terrence Malick’s relatively unknown 2013 film To The Wonder has been out for a couple of years, skirting the mainstream spotlight amidst lukewarm critical reception: it doesn’t stack up to his previous film, the Oscar-winning Tree of Life; it grasps at the transcendent but falls short; muddled character development; too much “Malick-ness.” Most reviews have billed it as a failed love story, but I think they’ve completely missed the boat. You shouldn’t allow these criticisms to discourage you from giving this film a chance. This is an excellent film with a cinematically beautiful and intellectually stimulating presentation of a clear spiritual lesson.

To The Wonder opens at picturesque Mont Saint-Michel, an islet that rests almost a kilometer off the rocky French coast of Normandy.  An awe-inspiring Benedictine monastery sits atop this island made periodically inaccessible by the swelling tide. Barefoot tourists make the wet, sandy trek when the water recedes, but in an instant the tide returns, sneaking up on unprepared returnees to the mainland. It’s not insignificant why Mont Saint-Michel serves as bookends to the film. In fact, the fleeting nature of the tide is the lens through which we should consider the rest of the movie.

We first encounter newly-in-love protagonists Marina and Neil ambling playfully toward the island. Marina, a Ukrainian expat, falls blissfully in love with Neil, an architect, and moves into his Oklahoma home with her daughter. Both react in drastically different ways to their new circumstances, the result of which provides an invaluable spiritual lesson.

The newness and excitement of their life together quickly fades as Marina struggles to adjust to life in Oklahoma. Her love for Neil is reciprocated less each day. Despite a Sunday homily re-presenting the condemnation of the lazy servant’s diffidence and mismanagement of his only talent, Neil remains just that – stuck in a spiritual quagmire and hesitant to profess his love for Marina. An emotionally exhausted Marina returns to France after her visa expires while Neil enters into – and ultimately fails at – another muddled relationship. Both characters visibly and audibly search for God, begging for his inspiration and guidance in their tumultuous relationship.

In an interesting parallel, Neil and Marina aren’t the only characters suffering from spiritual dissonance. Father Quintana, the local Catholic priest, struggles internally with his vocation and indulges periodic moments of spiritual desolation, occasionally falling into despair. He attempts in vain to see and feel God in his life, going through the motions but remaining in a spiritual malaise. Fr. Quintana knows God is present in every facet of his life, yet slips into the dark night of his soul, incapable of encountering God regardless of how much he searches. It is in these moments that God seemingly recedes from him like the tide at Mont Saint-Michel.

The tide-like oscillations of the spirit become a central motif as the film takes a turn towards self-exploration. Three types of responses emerge amongst the protagonists. Neil’s indecision manifests physically. Wherever he goes, he plods along with tentative steps, never walking anywhere with confidence. In direct contrast, Marina embraces every opportunity to run and twirl: through fields, stores, her home, etc. It seems a little ridiculous, but everything is significant in a Terrence Malick film. As it does with Neil, Marina’s prancing is metaphor for her spiritual life. While Neil never actively makes any mistakes (like the lazy servant), Marina’s whimsical indulgences and undirected passion lead her to make plenty, even to infidelity.

Many critics overlook the importance of Fr. Quintana in their reviews, when it just so happens that his poignant struggles are key to understanding the film as a whole. Seeing his inner turmoil unfold is the most unsettling, but his personal response to managing his desolation also reaps the greatest reward. Fr. Quintana keeps moving, physically and spiritually. Even in his bleakest moments questioning God’s existence, he ultimately submits his struggle to God and remains resolute in prayer. We never see him stand still like Neil or speed through daily life like Marina. He moves steadily and evenly (searching) about town, the rectory, the church, even though God seems absent, and embraces a virtuous perseverance. Eventually, the tide returns and God is revealed to him precisely through the homeless and drug-addicted to whom he ministers, despite their deplorable conditions that once tempted him with unbelief. God’s grace floods his soul, his constancy rewarded.

One question that Malick fails to address – or perhaps avoids out of the sheer immensity of its implications – is why God permits Fr. Quintana, a seemingly holy and pious man, to experience such desolation. It’s a question that has been asked since Christianity’s earliest days, and it would be unrealistic for even a director as ambitious as Malick to address in a single film. Malick acknowledges this great human mystery but wisely leaves his audience to explore it on their own. Instead, he focuses on how we should address the fluctuations in our spiritual lives, when, not if, they happen.

On a personal note, I found myself thinking of the saints in response to the film’s circumvention of such a weighty issue. So many of our highly esteemed spiritual giants experienced a similar state of desolation. The most gut-wrenching example, in my opinion, is St. Faustina’s dark night of the soul as detailed in her autobiographical diary. As she united herself ever more closely to Christ, she experienced Christ withdraw from her, which caused her immense spiritual anguish but also a better understanding of redemptive suffering. She, like the saints, eventually understood that Christ intended to teach her to completely rely on Him and unite herself to Him more fully by experiencing the utter despair Christ felt on the Cross. Perhaps this was Malick’s intent all along: to leave the answers to those most qualified to provide them.

Finally, how do we get back on track, or “find the center” as Fr. Barron often says? Fr. Quintana’s road towards fulfillment is clear, but what happens when our experiences more closely resemble the traps encountered by Neil and Marina? Malick seems to favor Marina’s path which is to always return to the Sacraments. She confesses her infidelity and is repeatedly found praying in the Church. Whether she is in a state of spiritual desolation or consolation, Marina believes deeply in the treasury of grace available to her through the Sacraments. The recognition of her own concupiscence is always paired with a scene of Marina immersed in water, symbolic of baptismal renewal. Neil, again, does the opposite. The water with which he is associated, the groundwater at his construction site, is polluted and wreaking havoc for residents of the neighboring subdivision. Without the Church and the deposit of grace available in the Sacraments, Neil likewise becomes polluted and stagnant.

To The Wonder quickly became one of my favorite films. After multiple viewings, I was able to identify in turn with each of the main characters, realizing that at times our own lives may experience a variety of spiritual stumbling blocks. To The Wonder is encouraging in its reminder that there is hope no matter what season of spirit we are experiencing. Terrence Malick never disappoints, and this film is well worth a careful and thoughtful analysis.