Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder (Hereafter: Wonder) is one of the most underrated, beautiful films of recent times. Considering Wonder was the first film released by Malick since his magnus opus Tree of Life, it was also going to have trouble filling the astronomic expectations of Malick fans. Not helped by the narrowed ambitions of this new film and renewed pressure from hostile critics determined that a filmmaker such as Malick stop receiving vast praise for artistic, philosophical and deep filmmaking.
To truly appreciate Wonder it needs to be viewed more than once because it can only be fully understood when the structures that underpin the film come clearly into view; it is only noticeable how individual scenes connect with other proceeding or later scenes after the film has been watched more than once. Isolated scenes begin to form a deeper whole, a philosophical and aesthetic structure is revealed.
On second viewing, and repeated viewings after, Wonder is a marvel of a movie: you just need to understand what the movie is attempting to do, and then you can objectively decide whether the movie achieves it, and whether you found aesthetic enjoyment watching the movie’s attempt to achieve its objectives.
If there is a criticism of Wonder it is this – on first viewing, the film does not do enough to force the viewer to re-watch the movie, even for Malick fans. But those Malick fans who do not take the plunge to re-watch the movie and garner the secrets the film has to offer, have ye little faith! Wonder is a film that does not radiate immediate beauty, it is not glamorous, showy, vapid or consist of sparkling objects and set pieces. The beauty of the Wonder lies in its “slow arrow of beauty”, as characterised by Freidrich Nietzsche:
“The slow arrow of beauty. The most noble kind of beauty is that which does not carry us away suddenly, whose attacks are not violent or intoxicating (this kind easily awakens disgust), but rather the kind of beauty which infiltrates slowly, which we carry along with us almost unnoticed, and meet up with again in dreams; finally, after it has for a long time lain modestly in our heart, it takes complete possession of us, filling our eyes with tears, our hearts with longing. What do we long for when we see beauty? To be beautiful. We think much happiness must be connected with it. But that is an error.”
In this article I will give an analysis of the meaning of Wonder. As I will attempt to explain, any analysis of Wonder should not focus on the limited narrative arc of the film. Wonder eschews traditional modes of story-telling such as narrative, tasks and the protagonist-antagonist distinction. There is a narrative to the film, and a train of events that can be understood from preceding causes but the film does not have a traditional narrative, story arc or development of characters.
Take a typical movie and it will deliver the standard story arc of statement of problem, proposed solution to problem, obstacles that foil solution, successful solution to problem and then attainment of the goal. Wonder does not follow this template. Wonder is primarily focused on answering the central question that is posed throughout the film, and moreover this central question is only revealed at the mid-point of the movie. This has a disorientating effect for viewers that clamour for the hand rails of narrative to understandably propel their attention through the movie as Wonder does not have a narrative as such. It is this precise aspect that makes repeated viewings of the film necessary and extremely worthwhile, even if it fails to convince movie-goers to make this plunge.
The Central Question
Any analysis of the film that refuses to highlight this central question that the film poses does not really understand the film. Understanding the central question of the film renders the film’s ending intelligible and frames the characters motivations and behaviours coherently. Wonder primarily focuses on two relationships throughout the film. The main relationship is the turbulent and mostly non-existent relationship between Marina, played by Olga Kurylenko, and Neil, played by Ben Affleck. The secondary relationship in the film is between the Priest, Father Quintana, and his tenuous relationship as to the existence of God.
As Malick denies revealing the primary question of the movie until its midpoint the viewer watches the beginning of the movie as if it were an impressionistic painting devoid of extraneous details such as an overarching narrative, antagonists, and tendentious ideologies inserted into cellouid. On a repeated viewing the structure of the movie becomes transparent, and it directly and logically leads to both Marina’s and, by proxy, Father Quintana asking the central question of the movie.
Structurally both relationships are identical, Marina – madly in love with Neil – emigrates with her daughter to America to be with him. However, once living in America the relationship sours and she returns back to France with her daughter. Lonely, she returns to America without her daughter (who has remained in France with her father) and she marries Neil in a rushed, hurried, civil wedding without friends and family with prison inmates as witnesses. Although newly married, the couple immediately skip past the honeymoon and intimacy stage of their relationship and fast forward to an icy, insecure relationship; despite this, the marriage does have its odd moments of romantic passion to Marina’s delight. In the case of Father Quintana, his relationship with God can be characterised by his internal statement:
““Everywhere you’re present and still I can’t see you. You’re within me, around me, and I have no experience of you. Not as I once did. Why don’t I hold onto what I’ve found.”
Father Quintana is in the midst of a crisis of faith. Father Quintana, a priest that has lost faith in the existence of God of whom he once believed in. It would be a mistake to say that Father is an atheist. His statement does not reveal that he does not believe in God, rather it is the more nuanced statement – I once had an experience of God, but now I can’t see Him or find a trace of him anywhere. Father Quintana is seeks to find another experience of God, and not being able to see the presence of God anywhere begins to erode his belief that he ever experienced him.
If anybody needs the experience of God it is the Priest. I do not mean this in the trivial manner that a Priest should have the experience of God if he wants to profess his belief in God’s existence, rather I mean that the Priest needs an external agency to redeem the suffering that he experiences daily in his priestly duties. For instance, Father Quintana frequently visits jails to spiritually pardon convicts, visits poor socio-economic communities to provide psychological relief to those suffering from crippling illnesses, mental illness and abuse. Father Quintana frequently – as is his duty – preaches sermons of transcendental concepts, such as, divine love and forgiveness, but his daily interactions are those stuck in the grim of the world. However, this it would seem is the duty of the Priest, the duty to redeem the pain, suffering and misfortune of the world through the sacred gospel. But what if the Priest – after his words, belief and faith fail him – cannot see the presence of God in the world and therefore cannot redeem the fallen aspect of the world.
So, as we can see, both Marina and Father Quintana have this same structure: exuberance or love for the relationship with the other and then the fall of the relationship
Before I state the central question that motivates the film and its directorial choices, Marina poses the central question after Marina and Neil have just reawakened the passionate sexual desire in their relationship following a period of prolonged “marriage trouble” between them.
The central question of the film is stated by Marina in a whispered monologue as the symbolic image of a turtle is swimming towards the surface of the ocean where a beam of light is piercing through the ocean:
“Where are we when we are there? Why not always? “Which is the truth?” What we know up there? Or down here?”
The idea that Marina is expressing here is that in love and in life, what is the more true and essential state of the thing? In romantic love, what is the true expression? Is it the periods of intense romantic and intimate love between couples or is it the periods of miscommunication, arguments and not wanting to be together? If it’s the periods of intense romantic love, why can we not stay there forever?
It is clear to see that Father Quintana is facing from a structurally analogous predicament to the issue facing Marina. Which is the truth? The experience of God in the world in the less glamorous aspects of the world? Or is the world godless and suffering, pain and destruction reign supreme? If God does exist, why can’t we stay up there with the experience of God forever?
To the Wonder
Early in the film, the initial lovers, Neil and Marina, visit the delightful Mont St. Michel in Normandy. During this visit the couple manage to reach the blissful ecstatic experience of love as they observe the cathedral’s premises. This experience is the essential aspect of the film. This is the type of experience that the Priest is yearning to find again through religion and the experience that Marina is seeking through the union of love.
The film visually demonstrates that the couple have ascended to the peak blissful experience. During the visit to Mont St. Michel, Marina in a voice-over states as they are climbing some steps “we climbed the steps … to the wonder.” The “to the wonder” she is expressing here is the metaphorical feeling of wonder. The feeling of amazement, admiration, and also the blissful ecstatic experience of love. This is further confirmed when climbing the steps Marina and Neil tightly and passionately embrace in an affectionate hug. To stimulate this mystical feeling of wonder in the audience the director Terrence Malick purposefully overlays the images with the stirring music of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal Overture.
After climbing the stairs the following image is presented in the movie:
Notice the obvious resemblance and reference to this famous image:
This is a metaphorical image displayed in the movie that states the same point as my exposition. The lovers have ascended from the realms of lower “earthly” experience and have climbed to the higher experience of wonder through blissful ecstatic love. This is explained contextually by reference to the famous image of God reaching out to Michelangelo in the “creation of Adam” painting, where a higher being reaches out to a lower being in an embrace of unions.
Starting with Father Quintana, earlier in the movie, a cleaner persuades the Father to touch the stained glass windows and tells the Priest that through these windows comes normal light and spiritual light. The idea expressed here is that God’s presence – a type of invisible spiritual light – lays through the world like a higher-order property supervienient on a lower-order property in a non-reductive manner. This is a metaphysical explanation why the Priest cannot see the presence of God in the daily suffering of the world. Ironically, the cleaner not only instructs the Priest of this explanation but demonstrates a crucial difference between them: he feels the presence of this spiritual light whilst the Priest does not.
After tending to an individual suffering from downs syndrome (I assume, forgive me), the individual tells the Priest that he is thankful for such people like him in the world. This sense of purpose and recognition in those unduly struck by suffering and disease proves to be the catalyst for the affirmation of the Father’s faith in God.
The movie demonstrates that the Father has transcended his crisis of faith and has once again seen the wonder of existence when he revisits the suffering, the ill, and the poor in the dilapidated housing and run-down neighbourhood when he begins to recite the prayer of St. Patrick. This is an obvious reference that the Priest can now see the presence of God throughout the world and in all things.
Father Quintana: 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,
Finishing with the protagonist Marina, her relationship with Neil continues to deteriorate to such an extent that she has a romantic tryst with a carpenter. Racked by guilt she tells Neil of this encounter and this eventually leads them to getting a divorce. Out of the romantic encounter with the carpenter, she gives birth to a baby boy.
Divorced and a single mother to a baby boy (her other daughter remains in France with her father), she begins to find pleasure spending time with her child (now a toddler) playing with the ducks. In another brief micro-vignette she is seen in delirious happiness running in the direction of a flock of birds as they traverse harmoniously across the sky. Marina, it appears, is finding happiness in the freedom of nature, rather than being dependent on other human beings. This realisation is the catalyst for her ecstatic experience of wonder.
Marina hits the height of “religious” ectascy when we meet her alone in a pastoral setting running, dancing and exploring the nature within it. Feeling the beauty of life, Marina becomes visibly blissful and ecstatic. She is experiencing the wonder, the wonder of life, and as she does so, a golden light shines over her face, which is a visual reference to attainment of higher experience. Symbolically this is the spiritual light that pursing through the stained windows at the church, the sunshine breaking the surface of the water when the turtle swam from the depths. This spiritual light that furnishes its participants with an intense feeling of ecstasy is also metaphorically symbolised in higher experience by climbing the stairs – in the context of this movie – at the Mont St Michel and the striving towards higher transcendent experiences, as confirmed by the ending.
During Marina’s ecstasy the stirring strings of Wagner’s Parsifal’s overture is loudly playing and recreating for the audience that feeling of ecstasy. The image fades out to the final image of the film, Wagner still playing, to the sumptuous image of Mont St. Michel, with its cathedral rooted to the beach but its spire reaching towards the heavens and transcendence. The final visual reminder that the central question of the film has been about the conflict between the two: the cathedral on the Earth and the seeking for those higher transcendent moments of ecstasy