To the Wonder: Cinematic Homage to 1 Corinthians 13

The second film I wanted to highlight on the Salt + Light Radio Hour this week also offers tremendous hope, and a beautiful vision of human nature.

If you saw filmmaker Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, you have a good idea of the cinematic journey into art and human nature that Malick attempts to bring us on in To the Wonder. As you might remember, I absolutely loved The Tree of Life (earlier blogpost). To the Wonder is remarkably similar, with many of the same elements. For me, Malick’s style in these last two films is a kind of cinematic impressionism, where we enter into the details of the characters’ lives at just a few points, but so closely as to almost live these moments with them. The narrative structure is more defined in To the Wonder than in The Tree of Life, but is still quite simple and nonlinear. (For those unfamiliar with Malick’s latest films, the narrative line might seem almost nonexistent.) Nevertheless, the narrative tension moves the film forward—several times I found myself tensely wondering how the characters were going to end up. But at its core, To the Wonder is not so much about telling one love story as it seems to be about telling the story of love itself, opening up for us a meditative space where we can contemplate about one of the greatest mysteries—and gifts—of life.

To the Wonder’s love story explores the true nature of marital love and reminded me specifically of Pope Benedict’s letter, God Is Love, (Deus Caritas Est), which beautifully describes love. For me, To the Wonder is like a cinematic 1 Corinthians 13—a canticle of praise about the gift of love in our lives, and also an exploration about the true nature of love, what love isn’t, how love can be twisted into hate, or reduced into something very small—like lust which is self-centered and doesn’t have much to do with romantic love at all. And yet, how we all yearn to be loved and to love. And that once we learn to love, life is forever changed for us.

To the Wonder is rated R in the U.S. because of some sexuality and nudity. Because To the Wonder is for the most part celebrating the beauty of the human body in a lyrically artistic way, I think a lesser rating would have been more appropriate (as they gave it in Canada, where it’s rated 14A). 

The film also explores the relationship between love and faith (both the virtue of faith and the quality of trust or faith in the beloved), both in the main story but also with a number of moving scenes about a priest who is going through a spiritual dark night. But above all, this seems to be a film that delves deep into the vocation of marriage. (I would bet that those who are studying Theology of the Body would really benefit from seeing the film.) 

Malick’s images are exquisite, of course. But the sparse dialogue—or better, monologues typical of Malick’s films—contain many of my favorite parts, perhaps because I’m a writer. (The authenticity that comes from including the monologues in the characters’ original languages is a beautiful touch, although most have English subtitles.) At least two of the characters talk to God as their Great Lover, the Lover of all humanity, whom He is indeed for all of us. Perhaps my favorite line is a reflection from the priest, who is preaching about loving fidelity: “If you fear your love has died, then perhaps it is waiting to be transformed into something higher.”

To the Wonder is definitely a film for lovers of the art of cinema and of Malick’s work, for philosophers and for those who enjoy pondering the meaning of love, which is central to our very existence as human beings. As a film with a more experimental, limited-narrative style, it’s not for everyone. While I really liked this meditative film in my first viewing, I recommend:

1) seeing it on the big screen if at all possible (I know I would have appreciated it more) and

2) afterwards taking time to discuss how this film sheds light on our understanding and living out our vocations to love


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