Losing Heaven and Earth: A Review of Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder”

I really wanted to like Terrence Malick’s latest film To the Wonderwhich was met with mixed reviews among critics but received a particularly strong and tantalizing review in America. Like many others, I’ve grown tired of my generation’s ironic detachment and have tried to embrace a new earnestness (or, as it has been recently coined, the “new sincerity”). At the end of Malick’s film, however, I had to admit that there was simply a limit to how “earnest” I could be—or how much of other’s earnestness I could take. A colleague who had seen the film with me turned to me as the credits rolled and asked, only half in jest: “That was a joke right? Surely it wasn’t serious?” And, frankly, with 112 minutes of montage and monologues—or, as The Detroit News accurately put it, “solemn intonations of bad poetry over open-field twirling scenes and long serious looks of love, tenderness and cosmic understanding”—there were moments in which I had to remind myself that I wasn’t watching a parody of the worst excesses of art house cinema.

The film, which admittedly has gorgeous moments, tries to both capture the ineffability of the transcendent (one of the main characters is a priest struggling with a relentless experience of God’s absence) and its welcome but unexpected appearance in the most unlikely of places. Yet, at the end of the day, Malick’s transcendence is just too easy. He’ll grant us a bit of angst but then it’s on to more footage of the female lead, Olga Kurylenko, dancing through fields of wheat, supermarkets, suburban backyards, and then more fields of wheat while the sweeping score of orchestral classics proclaims: “See? Beauty is everywhere! Beauty is everywhere! Love is everywhere! God is everywhere!” It’s not that I think this is wrong, per se—I’m all for “God in all things”—but Malick’s overpowering presentation risks turning this assertion into the inscription on a Hallmark Card. Beauty and Love and God end up being nowhere because of Malick’s unproblematic insistence on their manifest presence everywhere. What happens is not, ultimately, a transcendentalizing of the immanent—a lifting to heaven of the everyday—but an immanticizing of the transcendent in which heaven is drug down to earth even as Malick seems unwilling to grant any recognition to the earth as earth.

The issue can perhaps best be illustrated by contrasting To the Wonder with a very different film that also struggles with questions of the transcendent: Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light, the second film in his “Trilogy of Faith.” Bergman’s reserved film centers on a small-town pastor’s crisis of faith. In many ways, the pastor resembles Javier Bardem’s character in To the Wonder, but Bergman’s film is willing to do what Malick’s film does not: to truly enter into the experience of the absence of God. Unlike in Malick’s film, in Winter Light the transcendent never conveniently manifests itself in artful, luminous montage—it’s never clear if there even is such a thing as transcendence, let alone God. Nevertheless, Bergman’s film thinks more deeply and compellingly about transcendence—and comes closer to a true representation of it—by dwelling on its absence than To the Wonder ever does by insisting on its manifestation. There are, in Bergman’s oeuvre, moments of beauty, even moments of hope and of transcendence, but they are never easy and never “pure.” They are messy and tenuous and never without suffering and, perhaps because of this, they also ring true.

But Malick’s film not only fails to do justice to the transcendent, it also never really gives the immanent its due.  Here, I confess, I will be putting on my Catholic hat—but I like to think that my critique is at least as aesthetic as it is doctrinaire. In Love Alone Is Credible, theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar makes a strong differentiation between the experience of human love and that of divine love. Human love is necessarily finite and limited even though it desires infinity and eternity: “The sphere of ordinary existence, the plain where people interact, contains at best a middle position in which love and self-interest, love and nonlove, temper one another.” The encounter with divine love is of an entire different order because it is the only love capable of the infinite. The encounter reveals—rather than simply collapsing—the incommensurability of the infinite and the finite even as it makes the impossible crossing between the two realms:

Precisely in the movement in which the creature sees and feels itself drawn to God’s heart, it knows in its most unfathomable depths that it is not God, and it grasps in an undeniable and irrevocable way the fundamental difference, which is never to be closed, between absolute and relative, divine and worldly being. And yet the creature can endure the tremors this difference sends through the foundations of its finitude only when it has understood how to read the figure of revelation: not merely in terms of form as “Word”, but also in terms of content as absolute Love.

To the Wonder, in contrast, simply collapses infinite and finite love. The film consists of two running storylines: first, the progression of the strained relationship between Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina and, second, their priest’s daily interactions with the poor and suffering in his diocese, which only furthers his sense of God’s absence. At the close of the film, my friend asked me: “Was there even a connection between the priest and the couple?” I responded: “Sure. They’re both struggling with the absence of the transcendent, the ineffability of God and of Ben Affleck.” And it’s, for lack of a better term, the “ineffability of Ben Affleck” that proves a problem. Just as the transcendent fails to be treated as truly “transcendent” in the film, so also does the immanent—the finite—fail to be given its due. The love of Neil and Marina (or its absence) is treated as the same as divine love (or its absence). The unknowability of the beloved other and the unknowability of God are of the same order. Obviously, these states are related and we can reasonably understand them in relationship to each other; however, they are not the same and neither is done justice if they are treated as though they were the same. What never truly appears in the film—even through a “present absence”—is a notion of absolute otherness that would allow for a true contrast between the eternal and the finite. The film’s “transcendence” is unfulfilling precisely because it never appears as an in-breaking from beyond experience. Conversely, the film’s characters never really take on any life of their own because they’re never allowed to touch the ground, to consent to their own embodiment. It becomes all but impossible to conceptualize what the lived experience of Neil and Marina’s relationship would be like because it’s been so throughly wrapped up in idealizing romanticizations—even its moments of crisis are insistently framed in a high lyric mode. You can’t help but suspect that the film is almost completely free of dialogue because Malick feared that it might break the spell and plunge us back to earth. While To the Wonder aims to unite heaven and earth, it ends up losing both in the process.


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