Terrence Malick is pretty weird.
There's no way of getting around that, really. The director's a genius, I’m pretty sure. But geniuses can be a bit odd. Most moviemakers seem preoccupied with things like plot and tension and plausibility. Malick seems to work in a surreal, dreamlike landscape all of his own. Plot is there, of course—but his stories move like memory. Moments splash on the screen with extraordinary detail and power. But the explicit connections that join them fade in a transitory haze. If he was a novelist, Malicks books would be all nouns and verbs—dumping modifiers and dependent clauses and, really, huge swaths of punctuation. His recent films make 2001: A Space Odyssey look like a Jason Statham flick.
When I saw The Tree of Life, it took me a good two days before I figured out I loved it. I saw Malick's latest film, To the Wonder, three weeks ago … and I'm still not sure.
But even if the movie left me a bit conflicted, the message is pretty awesome. You can see my review here to get the basics, but in this space I'd like to drill a bit deeper.
The plot of To the Wonder is pretty basic: Neil and Marina dig each other, but they struggle to preserve the spark over the long term. In a parallel story, Father Quintana wonders why he's lost his feel for God.
The two stories together become a rumination on love and faith, and how hard both can be at times.
In a way, love and faith are so linked as to be almost indistinguishable from one another—something Malick understands. Relationship—the bond we share with one another and with God, too—demands a bit of both. We trust that our partners will be faithful to us, that our friends will not betray our trust. We believe they love us, just as we love them. Love is what we give. Faith is what we keep—the trust we have, the hope we cling to.
But offering love and holding onto faith can be tricky. We’re finite beings grasping at infinite truth and depth. It’s easy to get discouraged.
And that’s what we see in To the Wonder. Marina complains about how distant Neil is, even as Father Quintana struggles with how to relate to an invisible God. Marina and Quintana struggle with their own human weakness and frailty. They grow discouraged and angry. Marina is gravely tempted. “My God, what a cruel war,” she says. “I find two women inside of me. One, full of love for you. The other pulls me down to the earth.” It can be so hard to patiently listen for God when the world all around us chatters so insistently.
The story ends on a tragically pragmatic note. And yet, there’s still a stubborn insistence that our love and faith is not in vain.
I love Quintana’s sermon on love:
Love is not only a feeling. It is a duty. You show 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 fear your love has died? Perhaps it’s waiting to be transformed into something higher.
It seems as though Quintana waits. And in the midst of waiting, we see tantalizing hints of the “something higher” that is, perhaps, waiting on him.
In the midst of his own spiritual struggles, Quintana talks with a janitor at his church. The man holds his hand up to a stained glass window and says, "I can feel the warmth of the light, brother. That's spiritual. I'm feeling more than just natural light. Felling the spiritual light. Almost touching the light from the sky."
It's telling that, in the movie's most spiritual moments, the sun and sky are powerful forces on screen—sometimes overwhelming the characters there. Again and again, Malick draws distinction between the earth and sky, our earthbound desires and spiritual inclinations. Sometimes they reach their hands in the air to feel the warmth on their skin. And at least one character shies away from the sun: A prisoner tells Father Quintana that he can't help his bad behavior—then, squinting, admits he "can't stand the sun."
In the end, Malick seems to suggest that God is like the sun—frustratingly out of reach sometimes, obscured often in our worst moments by cloud and fog. And yet, we feel Him in our lives. His presence is all around us.
In the end, we see hands reached to the heavens, feeling for the sun, as Father Quintana's voice offers a prayer to God.
Flood our souls with your spirit and life
That our loves may truly be a reflection of yours.
Shine through us.
Show us how to see you.
We were made to seek you.
We were made for love, for faith. It’s tough sometimes. But Malick leaves little doubt of his hope that the struggle is worth it.