Eros and Contemplation: The Catholic Vision of Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder

  • Author(s): Kathleen E. Urda
  • When: 2016-01
  • Where: Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
  • When Terrence Malick ’s The Tree of Life opened in 2010, it was met as often with derision as with celebration. 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. 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.” 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. 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 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.

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