We forget that films are primarily visual media and not verbal. Most filmmakers give short shrift to images, larding their films with words, as if they were novels. Not Terrence Malick. He, more than any other filmmaker that I know, works with the visual medium rather than against it. Because filmgoers are unaccustomed to image-driven narratives, they should remember C. S. Lewis’ advice in An Experiment in Criticism when seeing a film by Malick: “The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)” Regrettably, many “cultured” film critics ignored this advice with Malick’s 2012 film To the Wonder, which received a great deal of negative criticism, although that reveals more about the obtuseness of the critics than anything about the filmmaker. Above all, To the Wonder rhapsodizes about the inbreaking of divine love in the world, asking at the beginning and the end: What is this love that loves us? Dawn LaValle articulates this theme well in her review for First Things:
Only through generous surrender to the other in the context of unshakable loyalty do we access the permeating love that surrounds us, the “divine presence” which is already within us. Transformation occurs not through activism, but through the right kind of passivity. Losing the fear of commitment is nothing more than acknowledging the reality of a love that never changes.
To the Wonder startles us into realizing that the world is shot through, positively charged, with presence. Whether that presence is fructifying love or slinking destruction stands as an accusing question throughout the film. The most frightening aspect of all is that it is our choice to accept the love that surrounds us, or to keep ourselves destructively closed off from it, and thereby spread fear and absence of life. Far from idealizing this moment of choice, To the Wonder understands that choice comes not in a moment of critical decision, but in a thousand moments that minutely move us toward one side or the other.
Before reading other reviews, watch the documentary on making the film.
My favorite moment in the film is when the priest recites the Breastplate of St. Patrick.
Here are the bright-eyed reviews of “To the Wonder”:
- Reverse Shot: Michael Koresky, “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” (this is a brilliant film review and should be the model for how to write one)
- Christianity Today: Brett McCracken, “To the Wonder“
- First Things: Dawn LaValle, “Terrence Malick and the Fecundity of Commitment“
- Curator: Michael Leary, “A Garden of Sacramental ‘Wonder’“
- New Yorker: Richard Brody, “The Cinematic Miracle of ‘To the Wonder’“
- Patheos: Nick Olson, “Terrence Malick’s ‘To the Wonder’ and Psalmic Yearning“
- Film Fisher: Remy Wilkins, “To the Wonder“
- RogerEbert.com: Robert Ebert, “To the Wonder” (this was Ebert’s last film review)
- Off Screen: Daniel Garrett, “Beautiful Light, Vibrant Things, Speaking Minds: Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder“
- The Week: Damon Linker, “Terrence Malick’s moving Christian message – and film critics’ failure to engage with it“
- MUBI: Darren Hughes, “Notes on Terrence Malick’s ‘To the Wonder’“
- Bensonian: The Tree of Life (2011)