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“To The Wonder” should be experienced, not judged
There are some films for which a review is meaningless. Evaluating strengths and weakness means nothing when a film is exact in its craft—when all choices are deliberate, and not the byproducts of deadlines or focus groups, weaknesses are difficult to find. These are films meant to arouse emotion. They exist because the artist needed them to. If a film achieves what it set out to do, it can’t be viewed as anything other than a success. There might be arguments as to whether the message is one worth communicating, whether a film resonates emotionally with your own experience, but with certain films it’s not useful to criticize the artist’s techniques or intentions, because there isn’t any fault to be found.
Terrance Malik is one filmmaker that always makes the film he intends, and by that measure his films are good. But Malik’s films are unlikely to exist in any other way. He is too careful an artist. “To The Wonder,” his most recent romance, is a visual symphony that is meant to be experienced rather than judged. It is film as essential art rather than explicit storytelling, a collection of images with its own rhythm and structure.
The film shows Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurlyenko) as a young couple in love. Who they are is less important than what they represent, namely the silent American Male and the Impassioned European Female. Their lives appear dreamlike, with long shots of playful touching, small bursts of unheard whispers, accompanied by orchestral swells paired with long silence.
The film seems more memory than action—most dialogue is spoken in breathy, low tones or quiet internal voiceover. We aren’t seeing the world as it is, only as it is remembered. It is a story of deep emotion and anxiety, of both the spoken and unspoken truths that haunt every relationship. This isn’t a story that is inaccessible. Almost everyone has experienced the turmoil of love growing stale. Emotional distance and intimacy is approximated by the relative position of the actors on screen, by the empty dining rooms and flowing curtains, the vast skies and running water. Malik invokes emotional responses through dynamic visuals, his gift being one of associating strong feelings with the beautiful, natural Earth. The scenes of happiness and wonder always appear to be looking up, as if from the perspective of a child, looking to the optimism of heaven. Those of despair and loneliness are close, with closed blinds and quick cuts.
Another character, Father Quintana, mirrors the love story of Neil and Marina through his own struggle with faith. There is a strong connection in the film between secular and spiritual love. Neil loves Marina at a distance, not responding to the powerful devotion of Marina in a way that she can understand. Father Quintana is himself loved by a distant Father who doesn’t return affection in a measurable way. Their faith is shaken in different ways, different types of infidelity, but both seek forgiveness, hoping to be part of a “love that loves.” These strongly Christian themes are evident but not explicit, shown through Malik’s careful eye and direction.
At times, the film is as distant from the audience as Marina is from Neil, and at two hours, long shots of standing in the kitchen can be tiresome, especially for viewers not familiar with the director’s work. But given how much there is to see, how rich each scene is with visual splendor, it’s hard to be bored.
“To The Wonder” has been criticized for being overly somber. While it’s melancholy to be sure, memory is almost always bittersweet. There is simply too much beauty in the film for it to be as bleak as some say. The scenes in Oklahoma, especially, hint at how vast the world is and how small our place is in it. The ability to appreciate our smallness, even in the midst of internal sadness, is a credit to our place in the world.
Mise En Scenesters Presents: “To the Wonder”
$5. 8:30 p.m., June 29,
Barking Legs Theater,
1307 Dodds Ave.