Faith & Film: To the Wonder

“To the Wonder” is the new film by American filmmaker Terrence Malick. Malick’s last film was the Oscar-nominated “The Tree of Life” (2011). Although I had some reservations about “Tree of Life,” I did appreciate the fact that a mainstream American movie dealt with the theme of Christian spirituality, and received widespread critical acclaim.

“To the Wonder” is very much a companion piece to “Tree of Life.” While “Tree” explores faith in a family dealing with loss, “Wonder” deals with faith in the lives of a couple, Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko), as well as a priest, Fr. Quintana (Javier Bardem). While traveling in France, Neil, an American, meets Olga, a divorced Ukrainian woman, who has a child, Tatiana. Malick presents Neil and Olga as people who are seeking God, and a spiritual depth to their life. While traveling through France, they visit Mont St. Michel, and are quite taken with its silent spiritual beauty. When they return to Paris, Neil invites Olga and Tatiana to come to Oklahoma with him. They accept his invitation.

Neil, Olga, and Tatiana do well at first, living in a non-descript suburban neighborhood. Neil works as an environmental inspector. Olga says she married when she was 17 and divorced her husband when he left her with Tatiana, so she is unable to remarry in the church. (I wanted to tell her to inquire about an annulment!) After a while, the relationship cools, and Olga accuses Neil of not wanting to deal with deep issues like commitment. So she returns to France with Tatiana.

Neil and Olga keep in touch via Skype, and eventually Olga returns to Neil in Oklahoma. Tatiana has decided to stay behind with her father. Neil and Olga marry in what is the least romantic civil ceremony I have ever witnessed on film. Neil and Olga’s marriage goes through “better and worse” phases. Both Neil and Olga turn to Fr. Quintana, the local parish priest, for counsel. Obviously Fr. Quintana is a spiritual man, yet has experienced his own doubts and suffers from loneliness.

“To the Wonder” is similar to “Tree of Life” in many respects: The setting in a small Southwestern town. Malick uses the same cinematographer and production designer for both films, and they share a distinctive look. Malick’s style is visual. The story is largely told by the visual images, with very little dialogue. Malick uses voiceover narration by the characters to convey their feelings. Also, in both films, the church is very prominent in the lives of the people.

Wonder moves slowly, and demands a patient audience. It takes a while to settle into the rhythm of the film, which is so different from the fast pace of most contemporary movies and television. However, if you are patient, you will be rewarded by the spiritual quest of the characters.

In a remarkable sequence, Quintana goes about his pastoral duties, including visiting prisoners and the sick, bringing them the Eucharist. He also ministers to the poor of the area. As he does so, he seems to find his faith again. We hear the beautiful prayer, “St. Patrick’s Breastplate,” as he goes about his duties.

“To the Wonder” is not being given the same wide release as “The Tree of Life.” Despite the presence of Affleck, it’s obvious that this is not the kind of film that would appeal to a wide audience. While I appreciate Malick’s signature visual style, I wonder if he doesn’t overdo it at times. There are a lot of images of curtains blowing in the breeze! And the voiceover narration is at times barely a whisper. I know I didn’t catch it all.

Yet on first viewing I liked “To the Wonder” more than “The Tree of Life,” which seemed overly ambitious, returning to the beginning of time, like Stanley Kubrick’s great 2001. Wonder is more intimate, concentrating on the spiritual quest of three people: Neil, Olga, and Fr. Quintana. The movie ends with another visit to the beautiful silence of Mont St. Michel.

While I think it’s best to see “To the Wonder” in a theater because of its striking visuals, I realize many will not have the chance to do so. Fortunately, I understand that the film is already available through some cable TV and satellite systems, and perhaps even Netflix as well. It’s worth investigating.

I imagine that, like “Tree of Life,” “To the Wonder” will frustrate and perplex many. Others, like me, will want to see both again. Despite their imperfections, I am drawn to their distinctive spirituality.

Tom Condon, OP

A footnote: If you are interested in seeing more Terrence Malick, check out his two early films from the 1970s: “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven.” They’re great films, with his characteristic visual style and voiceover narration.