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The Beauty and Love of “To the Wonder”

April 15, 2013

By John C.

To the Wonder PosterTwo years after receiving critical acclaim and dividing audiences with his masterful and moving The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick weaves together a deeply spiritual look at the figurative tree of love in To the Wonder.  Already having a small run across the border, the film opens in select Toronto theatres this Friday.

The film has been receiving mixed reviews since it first premiered, and these differing reactions were exemplified as I left a screening of To the Wonder at TIFF last September.  I was left in awe by the beauty of what I had just seen, as pretty much everyone around me loudly shared their dislike of the film.

The film opens at the Mont St. Michel cathedral in France, where Marina (Olga Kurylenko) falls in love with Neil (Ben Affleck), their first encounters captured on handheld cameras.  Told through a fractured narrative of images, we watch as they move to Oklahoma with her daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), falling in and out of love as he reconnects with Jane (Rachel McAdams), a woman from his past.

They live in a sleepy small town made up of beautifully sunlit houses surrounded by nearby fields, and a church run by the quietly understanding Father Quintana (Javier Bardem).  These locations provide a striking backdrop to the ways that these characters all come together.  The majority of encounters are filmed in natural light, with the bright daytime sun illuminating the natural beauty of this world.  During other scenes, the film captures the fading sunlight of evening that is unmistakable for the feeling it evokes while shining through a window.

Terrence Malick bares his heart throughout To the Wonder, and I find it sad that he has received the most negative reviews of his prolific career for the film.  This is a richly rewarding cinematic experience for those of us who are willing to pay attention and just go with the flow, that is sure to become even more resonant after repeated viewings.  Favouring poetic narration over dialogue between the characters, To the Wonder is a beautifully filmed and emotionally engaging film that offers a deeply felt meditation on the connections between romantic and ultimately spiritual love.

Although love changes and is directed towards different people as we move through our lives, the feeling always remains in one form or another.  When Neil falls out of love with Marina, it is because he gets back together with a woman who he likely never stopped being in love with in the first place.  Although her relationship with Neil changes, the love that Marina has for her daughter will never waver and always stay the same.  This is a film driven by characters that isn’t made up entirely of conversations, and the actors are all excellent in the way that they convey so much of the story through their body language and physical emotion.

The character Father Quintana has a clear love for his congregation and understands the feeling of love as a higher power.  But he seems to struggle with the fact that he is not allowed the basic human instinct to experience a romantic relationship or the love for a child of his own.  As these different characters come together in various ways, I couldn’t help but wonder if Terrence Malick was trying to say that love is best understood when we are able to experience it in many different forms.  Perhaps to fully understand love in all of its beauty, we should be open to all of the many different ways which it can present itself.

There is a beauty to the images that Terrence Malick captures, from the sweeping nature shots that are a signature element of his films, to the intimate moments between the characters.  The scenes where the characters are falling in love feel real, as if they could be our own home movies that we are watching back many years later.  There isn’t much in the way of actual dialogue during these scenes, but there is always so much being said in terms of voice over and on a purely visual level.  The breakup scenes exist as hazy memories, things that are etched into our minds, no matter how painful they may be.

It’s fitting that Roger Ebert was able to share his thoughts on To the Wonder before he passed away, because he always had an appreciation for Terrence Malick and this is a film about how love shapes our lives.  Love that changes, evolves and takes on new meaning, but always exists in some shape or form, before being transformed into something often beyond our understanding.  “Why must a film explain everything?” Roger Ebert asked in his melancholic and understanding review, a question to which I would respond that a film does not need to tell us everything, just as life often leaves us with many unanswered questions.

This is a film that feels like a memory and plays as a dream, a beautifully filmed tapestry that captures the feeling of falling in and out of love.  “What is this love that loves us?” Marina ponders in one of the many deeply affecting moments of philosophical questioning that make up the film.  This love that loves us is something romantic and spiritual that will always exist, because it always has been.  There is something profoundly moving about this idea, and with To the Wonder, Terrence Malick celebrates the feeling in an incredibly beautiful way.

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