Saturday, April 20, 2013

To The Wonder ★★★

Searching For Love In Unforgiving Times

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

There is not another director working today that connects fluid camera movement with beautiful imagery as well as Terrence Malick does. Shots flow seamlessly together like streams of consciousness; we circle in and out of distant memories from someone else's life. The plot is less important than the ideas expressed, usually in voice-over. That's the best way I can describe what it's like to see a Malick film. It is, for all intents and purposes, visual poetry with religious symbolism sprinkled throughout. The same is true for Malick's latest film, To The Wonder, which deals with a woman's search for tangible love paralleled with a priest's search for God.

That woman, Marina (Olga Kurylenko), lives in Paris with her boyfriend, Neil (Ben Affleck), and her daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline). The film begins by showing the love Marina and Neil share, barely able to keep their hands off of one another. Malick shoots these scenes in an evocative manner, pulling the audience into the passion these two share. When Neil persuades Marina to come back to America with him, their love begins to fade, especially when there's an apparent refusal on Neil's part to marry Marina so she may stay with him. We're introduced to a priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), whose love and devotion to God is dissolving with every less fortunate person he tries to help. 

Marina is in search for "the love that loves us" as she says at one point, and Father Quintana wants proof of God's existence. Marina is so determined to believe in that love that she fails to see what an idiot Neil is. She's blinded by faith, a bit naive, but also spirited and optimistic. Father Quintana is the opposite, his search guided by frustration and distrust. Both stories run parallel throughout the film, which proves less effective than Malick's previous film, The Tree of Life, which brilliantly used ideas of existence to pose similar questions asked in To The Wonder. Using lost love as a metaphor for one's devotion to God is a bit heavy-handed and does not illicit the response I think Malick was going for. 

The main problem is that Malick doesn't seem to have an interest in Neil, the character whose story is placed front and center. Early in the story Marina's green card expires and Neil, seemingly unfazed by the fact that she's forced to leave, wanders aimlessly for a bit before meeting Jane (Rachel McAdams), a woman he knew many years ago with whom he begins a relationship. Malick appears to be obsessed with choice, or in Neil's case, the lack of choice. Neil doesn't know what he wants and therefore cannot commit to either woman. Why either of them ever fall for him is lost on me, but then again, the heart wants what the heart wants. In this case, it's a brooding Affleck. 

For all of To The Wonder's faults, much can be said about the isolation and loneliness that misplaced love can offer. Marina dances in beautiful panoramas, vast and desolate, always in search of a love she may never find. Father Quintana walks in and out of poor neighborhoods surrounded by people yet utterly alone in his desire to find God among the impoverished. The question at the heart of the film is whether or not these two characters will ever find the meaning they're looking for. The beauty of that question is where it takes these characters and how Malick shoots their determination in modern landscapes. 

This is by no means Malick's best effort as a filmmaker - a longer version of the story may have made it a masterpiece - but there's also something hauntingly real about what happens when love is felt for the wrong person. In an era when the divorce rate is at an all-time high, To The Wonder is optimistic in it's approach to love; however misplaced, however intangible, it exists in all of us and allows us to feel, to be human. Maybe that's the point.  

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