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Portrait of an empty marriage and absent God


To the Wonder (M). Director: Terrence Malick. Starring: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Javier Bardem. 112 minutes

Oblique as they are beautiful, it is small wonder that Terrence Malick's films divide audiences into disciples and detractors of equal fervour. His latest film To the Wonder is as stirring and divisive as ever. At the screening I attended, as it ended, a collective murmur of bewilderment was obscured by a sparse burst of sincere applause. 'What on earth was that?' said a woman seated in the row behind me. I repeated this question with a wry smile to the friend beside me. 'That was genius,' said this confessed disciple with a grin. I was inclined to agree.

Malick's meditative style is well rehearsed through films such as The Thin Red Line and the Cannes Palme d'Or winning The Tree of Life. Using images cut impressionistically to the swell and ebb of the symphonic score and stanzas of prayer-like voiceover narration, he composes cinematic poems, richly allegorical, about the lives of ordinary people, their relationship to God and the world. Story and theme emerge cumulatively for the patient and responsive viewer. Like meditation, Malick's films demand active stillness.

Here Malick reteams with his The Tree of Life cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who provides him with endless layers of gorgeously composed images, each one alive with metaphor — as my friend the disciple declares, you could write an essay about each and every shot. On paper the story is a simple one of doomed romance: girl meets boy, they fall in love, fall apart, then try to rebuild. In Malick's hands it becomes nothing short of a religious experience. Just what kind of religious experience might depend on the viewer's predisposition.

The 'girl' in question is Marina (Kurylenko), a young Ukrainian woman living in Paris who migrates to America to live with her lover, Neil (Affleck). But once there her sense of alienation is immediate and palpable. Their house is part of a displaced and hastily erected patch of suburbia on the grassy fringes of civilisation. This only emphasises the emptiness inside the house and in the relationship itself; while Marina yearns to recapture the 'wonder' she experienced when she was first with Neil, he is emotionally and often physically absent. Increasingly she is alone.

Her aloneness is mirrored in the life of a disillusioned priest, Father Quintana (Bardem). He is ceaselessly questing for an absent God the way that Marina quests for her absent husband. This sense in the film of God as absent is almost suffocating, but is relieved by the hope that if God is absent from buildings and institutions (empty houses and churches) he may be present 'outside' and in relationships; Quintana comes into his own when he comes into contact with the needs of ordinary people, as he prays in voiceover 'Christ before me … behind me' and so on.

Neil is the film's most enigmatic character. Often we see him only in relation to Marina: how she responds to him, turns toward or is turned away from him, touches or is touched by him. As she stands in the living room, we see him blurry in the background, outside, mending a fence — shutting her in? She is trapped by her desire for him and the choice she made to follow him, though the promise of wonder is long gone. Frequently Neil is just an edge of jaw or curve of shoulder in Lubezki's frame, a longed-for presence, but partial and transitory.

If Neil is God, then God is a cold and clinical creature. Neil works as a soil tester — literally, he is concerned with guaging the damage that has been caused to nature by human activity, weighing and measuring as if to mete justice. Yet this job also sometimes sees him meeting and talking outside with ordinary members of the community, and this is strongly reminiscent of Quintana's pastoral ministry. Even if he is absent, maybe God too is longing for reunion. It is one possibility that can be drawn from Malick's many-faceted love story.

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street.

With thanks to Michael McVeigh.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, To the Wonder, Tree of Life, Terrence Malick, Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Javier Bardem



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Existing comments

Tim - thanks for this review.You've made it a must- see film. If I get you right, it introduces all 3 sacramental perspectives of 'the word, nature and loving relations', spoken of by the late poet, Vincent Buckley, and others. Mentioning 'nature' in particular - 'the damage that has been caused to nature by human activity' - reminds me how, in Melbourne, we are almost bereft of any prominent leadership in exploring the links between nature and spirituality - studies, etc. in spiritual ecology. I can only hope that we'll broach this area more fully, as, for example, Denis Edwatds has done in Adelaide, or the followers of Thomas Berry have done in the US with the 'Forum on Religion and Ecology' . Best wishes.

Len Puglisi | 11 July 2013  

I really enjoyed your description of this film Tim. Thanks. You have awakened my interest in Terrence Malick again.

Anne | 11 July 2013  

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