The cinema is a magnificent and perilous weapon when wielded by a free spirit. It is the best instrument to express the world of dreams, of emotions, of instinct.
– Luis Bunuel
Terrence Malick in ‘To the Wonder’ does just that: like waves, his shots take us along for a ride through a rhythmically surging and plunging depth of our instincts, emotions and dreams. There is a Marina, a Neil, a Jane, and a Father Quintana among us; in us and we look into our lives, as the camera moves across lots of vast and free space, sunlight and nature: grace. We are in a dream.
Each of them tries to reach out to the Divine at some or the other point of life but only to be pulled down to earth. As Marina muses- “My God, what a cruel war; I find two women inside me. One full of love for you; the other pulls me down towards the earth.” This monologue is immediately followed by a shot of calm and still water and then by one of crashing waves, creating an ideal metaphorical environment for the spectators mind. “In the broken marriage we see the pattern of the world”- the movie treats this biblical prophecy fairly enough. The irony in one of the shots, where the Father (Javier Bardem) releases the trapped wasp but the wasp chooses to fly back in provides the gist of the movie: in the modern world humans are trapped in misery by their lack of faith; even the priest finds himself entrapped. By the climax Marina at least frees herself from the trap, as we see her kissing the dew drop from a twig and moving ahead alone.
The narrative grants a novel linearly non-linear experience, as if time has been suspended in the monologues of all the characters. To my relief dialogues hardly appear. The only infirmity I would like to point out is that the visual element qualifies more credit than it has been given; that is, the shots either acted as a prologue or an epilogue to the narration. A little randomization of particular shots or else omission of narration at some parts and it would have done wonders ‘to the wonder’.
Directors who make the ‘immensity of existence’ their subject matter do it at a great risk; for they then often stray away from pure cinema. Film rhythm demands the balance and merger of elements: of imagery, of motion, of poetry, of music, of narrative; no one element feeling out of place at any moment. Malick figures out the perfect chemistry and that’s why his films are nearer to pure cinema (if not pure cinema) than of any other American director I have had the privilege to watch till now.
Film critic Roger Ebert in his review of The Tree of Life mentions that “The only other film I’ve seen with this boldness of vision is Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, and it lacked Malick’s fierce evocation of human feeling.”1 Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is, in fact, no comparison to Malick’s genius. If we really have to compare Malick’s genius in both, The Tree of Life and To the Wonder then the feelings they create or else bring to forefront, are closer to the ones Tarkovsky’s movies inspire but oddly Malick’s talents come with an American tinge which an astute spectator won’t miss; whereas in Tarkovsky’s movies even space dissolved. To the Wonder film defeats time but it doesn’t defeat space; we see, hear and smell America throughout the scenes and in Ben Affleck’s acting. Olga Kurylenko as Marina, on the other hand, does a fantastic job; she grows into the role. The film comes very close to evoking strong emotions but there is something missing; something very vital and this is where Malick lacks in relation to geniuses like Dreyer, Bergman, Bunuel and Tarkovsky.
Be that as it may, for its sombre beauty, this film is a must watch for any serious cinephile.