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  • Eros and ContemplationThe Catholic Vision of Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder
  • Kathleen E. Urda (bio)

When Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life opened in 2010, it was met as often with derision1 as with celebration.2 Still, there is no denying its status as an event among the intelligentsia, and one that was often highly praised. His subsequent film To the Wonder in contrast, barely made an impression upon its release in 2012, and when it did, was routinely mocked.3 Even those who liked the film among mainstream critics were careful to qualify their endorsement. In Roger Ebert’s mostly admiring review (the last before his death), he admits, “There will be many who find To the Wonder too elusive and effervescent.”4 Ebert’s suspicion that many people would find the film’s style obscure is accurate, but Damon Linker is also almost certainly correct to attribute some critics’ indifference or outright hostility to their difficulty with To the Wonder’s overtly religious, and particularly Christian, imagery and themes.5

In the same vein as The Tree of Life, The Thin Red Line (1998), and The New World (2005) in terms of its loose plot, lack of dialogue, and emphasis on the beauty of light and nature, To the Wonder intertwines two main narratives. The first involves the passionate love affair between a taciturn Oklahoman, Neil, and a beautiful Ukrainian-French [End Page 130] divorcee and mother, Marina. It begins ecstatically in Paris and ends in near despair in an austere Oklahoma suburb. Along the way, the affair is interrupted by Marina’s return to Paris and by Neil’s brief romance with an old friend, Jane. The second narrative concerns Father Quintana, a Roman Catholic priest who serves a poor parish in Neil’s Oklahoma town and who is experiencing a dark night of the soul. While he is seen throughout the film advising both Neil and Marina, Fr. Quintana’s relationship with God is the real subject of his narrative arc and parallels the relationship between Neil and Marina; both relationships become a meditation on the nature of love.

The unpopularity of the film cannot be entirely explained away as anti-religious or Christian prejudice; To the Wonder’s elliptical style, not to mention Malick’s penchant for lovely women dancing in fields, are challenging whatever one’s beliefs.6 But the generally more positive reaction among religious reviewers7 seems to support Linker’s view that some reviewers missed or rejected the film’s “ecstatic cinematic tribute to God.”8 Part of the object of this article is to acknowledge that tribute, but I also want to make a case for Malick’s undeniably odd film as a peculiarly well-suited response to our present struggles with love, marriage, and God. While the frustration that many people, religious or otherwise, have with Malick is related to his phenomenologically-inflected portrayal of seemingly inchoate but vivid feeling-states, I argue that this decision is also why Malick’s film makes an invaluable contribution to the artistic, and indeed, theological exploration of love and marriage in an age that defines them primarily as matters of emotion. The film mirrors its audience’s own preoccupations with and submission to intense passions—but with a crucial difference. The characters feel transcendent and then trapped because of their emotions, and Malick uses all his cinematic tools—music, silence, light, setting, narrative—to take us where they go. But he also employs those same tools to suggest the profundity of being and its intersection with, or rather, dependence on a love that is more than emotion and certainly more than the self. In so doing, Malick uses his form to create a deeply [End Page 131] Catholic vision of marriage and vocation that at its best becomes and inspires an act of contemplation amidst our contemporary crisis.

It is one thing to claim that marriage is or should be a sacrament; it is quite another to try to understand what that might mean or look like, especially in a period convinced that love is primarily our emotional experience of it and in which traditional...