"Show Us How to Seek You": Discovering the Love of God in Terrence Malick's To the Wonder

Article by   October 2014
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"What is this love that loves us?" asks Marina, the lead character, in one of the many voice-overs that stand in for dialogue in this spectral, mesmerizing, maddeningly unorthodox film. To the Wonder takes as its starting point this fundamental mystery of human existence, the realization that life is a gift, that to be is to be loved, that we awaken into the world awash in the love of God.  So pervasive is this love, this gift, that we can mistake its source as nature itself--"It comes from nowhere. From all around. The sky. You, cloud, you love me too," says Marina in answer to her question. And yet these are merely the reflections and refractions of God's love, much as the astonishingly varied play of light in water, in sky, in cloud and in field that Malick's camera captures in this masterpiece of visual poetry are merely the reflections and refractions of the light of the Sun--an image too recurrent in this film to not be an intentional metaphor. The relation of this love to the beauty in which it is displayed, and the relation of both to the frail and flickering light of human love, is the subject of this remarkable film.

I say "film" because there is no satisfactory alternative term for what Terrence Malick offers us here, but To the Wonder bears few of the hallmarks that one traditionally associates with a film, experimenting far more boldly than even its much-loved and much-hated predecessor The Tree of Life. Ben Affleck, who plays the male lead, commented in an interview, "This film makes The Tree of Life look like Transformers." The characters are few and their personalities sketched in few brush-strokes; aside from Marina's daughter, Tatiana, none of them are even named in the film. Dialogue in particular, the backbone that drives narrative, the vessel through which character is revealed, is almost entirely absent, and where it does appear, it is strangely fragmentary. The plot too is fragmentary, revealed in short broken sequences, themselves composed of smaller slivers as the constantly-shifting camera angle refuses to linger long on any one face or backdrop. The effect, however, is not frenzied or manic, as one might imagine, but languid and dreamlike. Narrative continuity is provided, as in many stretches of The Tree of Life, by music (incredibly moving and beautiful; with Wagner's opening to Parsifal providing a main theme), by recurring visual motifs, and by voice-overs by the two most important characters, Marina and a parish priest played by Javier Bardem. These voice-overs are themselves fragmentary and more evocative than revealing at first, though on a second viewing, their importance and meaning become clearer.  

Given these idiosyncrasies, it is easy to wonder at first if this film is little more than a series of incredibly beautiful and emotionally powerful vignettes, a sequence of poems in light and sound.  And yet there is a narrative shape to it that becomes quite clear by the end, a narrative obscured by its simplicity and straightforwardness. (We have been trained by contemporary television and cinema to look for complex, many-layered plots and subplots intersecting and overlapping in any given story, so that when we are presented with one as simple as this, we are not quite sure what to do with it).  I will summarize most of that narrative here without fear of spoilers, since nothing about this film depends on surprising plot twists: a single mother, Marina, and Ben Affleck's character (unnamed) meet in France and have a passionate romance; he invites Marina and her daughter Tatiana to come back to his native Bartlesville, Oklahoma with him; there, in the empty, oil-slicked landscapes and soulless suburbs, their romance begins to fade and sour, and Marina and Tatiana return to Paris while Affleck's character has a fling with an old acquaintance, Jane, played by Rachel McAdams. Some time afterward (a year, perhaps), Marina returns alone (Tatiana, frustrated, has gone to live with her father instead), and they give their romance a second chance, but with little more success, despite occasional sparks of renewed passion.  

This romance, welling up suddenly but slowing to a trickle, provides one of the two main lenses through which Malick examines his theme; the other is provided by Bardem's character, the priest, whom we see in brief glimpses preaching to his flock, wrestling in prayer alone in a dark home, giving counsel to Marina, and visiting the sick and the prisoners in his parish. His words--most in sermons and voice-overs--are few, but each one pregnant with meaning. The first time he speaks in the film, standing in the pulpit with a weary face and a voice lacking conviction, his words provide Malick's thesis statement: "There is a love that goes dry like a stream 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. The husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church, and give his life for her.  He does not find her lovely. He makes her lovely."  The story of To the Wonder is the story of these two loves, and their relationship to the loveliness they encounter--or fail to encounter.  

The love between Marina and the taciturn Affleck (remarkably taciturn; he speaks only a few times in the entire film) is obviously the first.  This is a love which is nourished by loveliness, by the extraordinary surroundings of Paris and Mont-St.-Michel where the film begins, and which, transplanted to the harsh and barren Oklahoma soil, starts to wither. At least, this is one implied explanation for their romance's dying spark. Another is the lack of communication: in the initial heat of passion, words mean and matter very little, and love may survive on laughter, on glances, on touch, but as love has to settle into the routine of life, only words can keep it alive, and Marina and her lover exchange very few. A lack of commitment too stifles their relationship early on--although Marina initially says, "If I left you because you didn't want to marry me, it would mean I didn't love you. I don't expect anything. Just to go a little of our way together," it quickly becomes clear that she longs for marriage, and his lack of commitment prompts her first departure. But when they do marry later on, it becomes apparent that it has been a mere gesture, in lieu of true commitment.  Affleck's character, in fact, while clearly capable of being very romantic, is not really loving at all. In fact, he is very little of anything at all, a mere façade, rather than a person. He is nameless and almost speechless, he pursues his job--as an environmental monitor for an oil company--with the same detachment as he increasingly shows toward Marina. He is capable of being seduced--even enraptured--by the beauty before him, whether that of Marina or of Jane, but the passion past, he lapses again into passivity.  

Bardem's character provides an extraordinary counterpoint to this tragic and uneven romance.His story too is a romance--that between him and his God--and at first seems vexed by the same challenges. Early in the film, we see him tormented by the sense that his love has run dry, that God has stopped speaking to him and he hardly knows how to speak to God anymore: "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." This prayer, coming shortly after his sermon, quoted above, reveals how empty his words to his congregants are.  He proclaims the never-failing love of God, but he no longer feels it.  

Given what we see unfolding in Marina's relationship, we have little hope for this priest. Except there is a key difference. Even while we hear him praying this prayer, we see scenes of him visiting parishioners in run-down neighborhoods--the old, the sick, the teen mother cradling her newborn all alone. Although he does not see God's love, does not feel it, does not hear it, he is still mirroring it, by showing love to the unlovely. Unlike Affleck's character, and increasingly Marina as well, he remains an agent, he does not let his lack of feeling make him lapse into passivity, but continues to act his part, even when it feels like a charade. This love that he shows, it becomes clear, is the love of God working in him, for it is a love that thrives in a soil of unloveliness, or rather, which discovers beauty in that which seems unlovely; or another way of saying this is that Bardem gradually discovers that yes, God is all around him--in the faces of the people he is called to serve. This is fully revealed in a five-minute montage near the end of the film, perhaps among the most powerful five minutes ever shown on film, as we watch Bardem minister to the sick and dying and watch the final stages of Marina's sick and dying romance as he slowly prays, "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. Flood our souls with your spirit and life so completely that our lives may be only a reflection of yours. Shine through us. Show us how to seek you. We were made to see you."

In its final sequence, the film suggests that the love and counsel of the priest has finally worked repentance in Affleck's character, who at last succeeds in a loving marriage to Marina, who ends the film with the words, "Love that loves us--thank you."

This discovery of beauty--of the face of God--in our surroundings, whatever they may be, mirrors Malick's own method in the film. Above, I have described a contrast between the vibrant beauty of the spires of Mont-St.-Michel and the repetitive gray rooftops of Oklahoma suburbia, between the ordered rows of trees in the Jardin du Luxembourg and the empty plains of the oil fields. There is certainly an implicit critique of the gaucheness of middle America in this film, and yet it is not at all that straightforward. Malick's camera is hungry for beauty wherever it may be found, and nearly every scene reveals an unexpected loveliness, sometimes a beauty that is simply breathtaking. We are reminded that for all our human marrings of it, the world is a gift, that we are awash in the love of God if only we have eyes to see it and courage to respond to it.

Brad Littlejohn holds a Ph.D from the University of Edinburgh and is the Managing Editor of Political Theology Today, the General Editor of The Mercersburg Theology Study Series and can be found writing regularly at bradlittlejohn.com

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