To the Wonder is the story of a man and the love he falls into and out of with two different women. Their story intersects with the story of a priest struggling with his faith as he serves the people of the town where the three lovers live. Like all of Terrence Malick’s more recent films, To the Wonder is impressionistic, relying on abstract narration more than dialog and more on cinematic snapshots of important emotional moments in the characters’ lives than on cause and effect plot points.
If you are able to empathize with the characters, to see yourself in them and recognize their existential struggles as similar to your own, To the Wonder is harrowingly urgent at an emotional level. In many films, the driving question is “Will the characters get ‘the thing?'” or “Will the characters stop ‘the thing’ from happening?” In To the Wonder, the driving questions are “Can the characters love each other?” and “Will they stay true to their vows?” Very rarely do our lives look like the lives of Indiana Jones or Bruce Wayne, but we struggle to love and stay true every day. How we fare in this struggle defines our lives, so, if you go along with it, To the Wonder feels more vital than other films.
I hate to risk oversimplifying this film. It is rich art worthy of continued enagement. I want you to go see it, reflect on it, and then consider what others have to say. What follows is my reflection on the film.
Terrence Malick is a Christian, and his films are drenched in God-talk. With the inclusion of the priest in To the Wonder, this God-talk becomes very explicit. The priest is at a point in his life where he has lost all religious fervor. God seems distant. His heart just isn’t in his work anymore.
But the priest’s story is simply a counterpoint to the love triangle that makes up the bulk of the film. Like the priest, the lovers lose their fervor as well, albeit of the romantic variety. They struggle to remain true in passionless relationships.
To the Wonder questions why passion wanes (“What poisons it?”) and how it can be sustained, revived, or reborn as something else. The film doesn’t offer many answers, but those it holds up as possibilities surround ideas of child-like innocence, repentance, communing with the natural world, and, most desperately, faithfulness when all emotional incentives have dissipated.
We use the word “faith” to mean many things. For some, faith means a system of religious practices. For others, faith means certainty or surety devoid of doubt. For still others, faith means movement toward the unknown. The first and third definitions are more closely tied than we often realize. The second is a misunderstanding of faith’s true nature.
Faith in the Bible is action. Faith is a verb. If life is a tree, faith is the living. Faith consists of the things we do because of the hope we have. Hope is a noun, namely, Christ – his life, death, resurrection, and return. The tree lives because it is rooted in something greater than itself, the earth. Because of Christ, our hope, we act in faith, and we call those faith-acts, “Love.” Love is an adjective, the green of the tree. If you stop acting faithfully, love goes away like the color green fades when the tree dies.
What about when the winter comes, as it does in To the Wonder, and all the colors fade? The tree must keep living. Its vibrant arboreal ardor must become faithfulness. It must keep returning to its source, though its source has become cold and hard. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “The prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please [God] best… [Evil’s cause] is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do [God’s] will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of [God] seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”
To the Wonder focuses more on the lovers than the priest, the trial of marital fidelity more than ecclesial. The love between God and humanity is more substantial and eternal than that between any two (or three) persons. The later is a bubbling up of the former into the temporal world, but because romance pops and fizzes, it is easier to depict narratively. The Bible takes the same approach. Marital fidelity throughout the Bible is evidence of, a metaphor for, and points to something else.
The sustenance or proof of both is faithfulness. To the Wonder is an opportunity to discover this faithfulness. When the vibrancy of summer is gone, the green recedes into the branches and survives as long as the tree persists into its source. The love between two people persists as long as they continue coming together, until together is all they are. The love between God and a person persists as long as the person continues striving into Christ, until Christ is all there is. To borrow the words of St. Patrick:
Christ 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 when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.
I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through a belief in the Threeness,
Through a confession of the Oneness
Of the Creator of creation