Monday, August 19, 2013

To The Wonder

A man and a woman fall in love. The landscape for their romance is the cathedral of Mont St Michel on the coast of France, as well as the Parisian streets and the Seine. Green and grey, with winding streets and glassy waterways, the backdrop for this couple is a sight to behold. Their story is told mostly through image, tiny glimpses into their beginnings and the sound of their thoughts as voiceovers. We rarely see the man's face, almost as if the romance is told from his perspective as he watches the his beloved twirl and dance with levity and joy.

She has a 10-year-old daughter. He invites them to come to American to live with him. Their green and grey world changes into grain and grass, the suburbs and cities and fields of Oklahoma. These are two different worlds, France and Oklahoma, and environments matter. Slowly their romance begins to cool. She leaves. He reconnects with someone from his youth, a new beauty to behold and stable foundation to build a life together. Yet something lingers in his heart for the woman from Paris, something that will lead him to make a drastic choice between two paths and two hearts.

To The Wonder lives up to its name. Filmmaker Terrence Malick once again uses image and sound to wash over the viewer, eliciting a sense of awe and captivation with the beauty of the world around. These people, these places, this love--they are a wonder to behold. Yet the film also made me wonder, in the "curious" sense of the word, pondering questions about motivations and direction and...well...plot. Like, will there be one? To The Wonder is visually rich and a marvel to experience, but with a narrative so empty I can summarize it in a single sentence: a man falls for a French woman, they experience ups and downs, then it ends. Oh, and the woman twirls around in circles a lot.

In a film, does a clear plot matter? What about dialogue? To The Wonder has very little of either. Can a film evoke emotion and transformation through imagery and music alone? Because of its big-name actors (Ben Affleck is the man, Rachel McAdams is the old flame, with Olga Kurylenko as the woman from Paris and Javier Bardem rounding out the cast as a priest), one might expect something a bit more conventional. Affleck barely says a word the entire film, and we are mostly staring at the back of his head. Should that bother us as an audience experiencing a film? When a movie does something unexpected and unique, pushing past our boundaries and offering us new insights into the world of art, romance, and God, how are we to respond?

Father Quintana (Bardem) is a fascinating character. His own romantic ups and downs are experienced with Christ. A love for Christ clearly motivates him, yet he wanders the streets of impoverished Oklahoma or stares at the walls of his decrepit house with a lonely countenance. He visits prisoners and serves the eucharist. He speaks with lonely and impoverished parishioners on their front porches. He gets an earful from a parish board member about program expansion. Despite all the ministry he is doing and myriads of people he is helping, he feels alone. Tired. Wondering. He has lost his first love, and is quietly mourning its loss.

To The Wonder is a frustrating and fascinating film, one that lingers and comes back to mind in moments of quiet. Where Malick's The Tree of Life encompassed the beginning and end of all creation, To The Wonder focuses on life's most wondrous reality: love. For Malick, love comes down to choice and commitment. Whom will I choose? To what person, place, or ideal will I commit my life? Will I commit to my choice, see it through to the end, remain constant and faithful? According to Father Quintana, "there is love that is like a stream that can go dry when rain no longer feeds it. 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." According to the Apostle Paul, love--the love embodied in the person of Jesus--is patient and kind, always protecting and trusting and hoping and persevering. In Christ, love never fails. That is a wonder to behold.

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