“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” Proverbs 12:13
“All night long on my bed I looked for the one my heart loves; I looked for him but did not find him. I will get up now and go about the city, through its streets and squares; I will search for the one my heart loves.” Song of Songs 3:1–2
Usually I leave the film blogging to my husband over at Filmsworthwatching, but I think I have something to add to the discussion for Terrance Malick’s latest film To the Wonder. First let’s start with the title. Isn’t that a prepositional phrase? In any case, it implies an action verb. This movie is about that verb. Call it struggle, wrestling, fumbling, journeying; it’s about how one goes about living the rest of one’s life after a great epiphany or “aha moment” that changes the way you see the world. If you’ve seen Malick’s previous movie Tree of Life it’s not a stretch to think of that moment as when a person gives their life to God and is ready to live a life of faith. This movie is about how you go about living this same life when we now have our feet on the ground and our eyes and minds upward. It’s about what we do after we’ve found our one true love.
The first word we hear (in French) and see in the English subtitles is “Newborn”. We then see a glimpses of the passion and play of a man and woman falling in love in the woman’s homeland of France. I think this can be interpreted as that euphoria that comes with being born again, our spiritual birth. Birth and babies continue to be a theme throughout the film as the woman has a 10 year-old daughter. Also, she experiences complications with birth control and her doctor proposes that if she would like to have a baby now might be the time. She says she’s not ready. This could be interpreted as a symbol for our spiritual state after we become a believer. We live between the now and the not yet. We know the truth and also know we aren’t yet all we were meant to be. We are like spiritual fetuses waiting to be born into our eternity with God.
There are two parallel stories about love that unfold at the same time. A priest is working through his love for God. The couple is working through loving each other. The lovers seem to be coming up short. Love has wooed them, they have taken great risks and made great sacrifices. They know it’s true and changes everything. Yet they struggle with how to live with this love.
About half way through the film I told my husband I thought it was oppressively romantic, cloyingly romantic and it is. Malick is a romantic storyteller. But when the story is also about romance it can feel a little claustrophobic. But that changes in the second half.
Roger Ebert, in his review of this movie said he never had thought much about how lonely the life of clergy can be until viewing this movie. I think he misinterpreted it. It’s not primarily loneliness, it is longing. For all believers there is tender companionship with God himself. But it is a pining, enduring kind of companionship. There is some doubt living in a physical world loving a God who is Spirit, but there is an overarching banner of hope. For the believer, the priest in this film is not to be pitied, but to be admired and related to. Clergy and all believers are lovers in waiting. Eagerly we await Christ in his second return, anxiously we long for our Bridegroom to take us home where can be all we were meant to be, in communion with our one true Love. I’m reminded of the book The Sacred Romance: Drawing Closer to the Heart of God by John Eldredge. “The point is the love story,” he writes, ” We live in a love story in the midst of war.”
And it is in that war where we spend the rest of our redeemed days. This is effectively shown through the two immigrant characters grappling with culture and language barriers and making sense of a new love-filled identity in a desperately fractured world. We, like Jacob, have our glimpse of glory and receive our blessing (Gen. 28) and we are forever changed. Then we wrestle with holiness as Jacob does with God (Gen. 32). But our struggle continues until our spiritual birth into eternity. We struggle with the evil remaining in ourselves and the deep darkness of the world around us. But we also wrestle with what to do. We struggle with what to do in the meantime. How now shall we live? The woman, after starting a relationship with her lover, struggles with what to do with ordinary time alone when her husband is at work and daughter is at school. She takes a big risk by following him to Oklahoma, making herself and her daughter strangers in the foreign landscape of American suburbia. She gives all to be with her love. Even her relationship with her daughter deteriorates as eventually she moves in with her father. Love has come at a high price.
When the man is away, the woman spends her days alone wandering aimlessly,waiting, struggling to establish relationships with others, isolated, bored, incapable and dysfunctional. Knowing love, she is spoiled for the world. That is until she is can embrace her husband again and then knows just what to do. Yet she seems to wonder if it’s enough.
This film doesn’t try to fix anything, or offer solutions. It presents that in-betweenness chapter when true love has been found, and deep sacrifice has been made, but we seem to come up not exactly empty, but not exactly full after all we’ve done, and that is how we spend day after day of this relationship. There is where the love lies, in the action, the doing, the long-suffering grit of life. We claw at threads of joy and assurance. We flirt with denial that we’ve ever met this Love. Some days we pretend we to have never learned the truth. We are always drawn back again to the light of love. It’s just messy–majestically messy–living as a beloved.
I was making a sandwich while putting thoughts together for this review. My family was already at the table. The three year-old was upset because the egg salad was spilling out of the sandwich when she tried to eat it. “Embrace the mess,” her daddy told her, “Messy food has flavor”. That’s true of food and love.
God is the great lover. Maybe Malick has been wooed by God’s creation, in all his reverent filming of it. If that’s true the audience has seen a beautiful love story unfold.