Terence Malick’s “To the Wonder,” released on DVD last year, is only the director’s sixth feature film since his first—“Badlands”—was released in the early 1970s. He is a director who obviously takes his time, and who is also notoriously shy of interviews, choosing instead to let his films—beautiful, mysterious, elliptical and spiritual—to speak for him. For the sake of full disclosure, I admit that his second film, “Days of Heaven” (1978), is one of my favorites (I’ve lost count on how many times I’ve watched it), so I always approach a new film by him with a great deal of excitement, and, for the most part, I have not been let down by his subsequent work. (His previous, “The Tree of Life,” was stunning to some, baffling to others, but everyone had to agree it was original in its approach to its story.)
“To the Wonder,” like its predecessors, uses voice-over narration and beautiful imagery to tell the story of a man and woman in and out of love. It begins in Paris but soon shifts from that classic locale to Oklahoma (it was filmed in Bartelsville, but this is not mentioned in the film), where the landscape, though present-day, reminds one of “Days of Heaven” and “The Tree of Life” (Malick was born and raised in nearby Texas). What’s particularly fascinating about the storytelling here is that it defies the usual expectations about narrative. We’re used to characters being explained–by themselves or by other means– as a way of moving the story forward, but here we learn as much from (sometimes cryptic) visuals cues, voiceover, and snippets of dialogue as anything else. This can take some getting used to, but once the viewer understands this, the story does move forward. Another thing to understand is that increasingly, Malick has been more explicit about religion, which here takes the form, at least in the context of the film, of Christian faith, albeit one rooted less in creed than in mystery. This is shown most explicitly through Javier Bardem’s character, a Catholic priest who, though only briefly involved with the main characters, plays a sort of counterpoint or complementary role to their search for human love, while he seeks to find God more fully in the faces of the poor around him. Finally, there is the ever-present use of natural and man-made imagery that Malick continues to revel in, and that serves to show us in sometimes unexpected places the beauty of the world around us.
“To the Wonder” will test the patience of some, and annoy others with what at least appears as pretentiousness; to this viewer, whatever problems there might be with the film, they are offset by the conviction that here we are confronted with a unique artistic sensibility in the world of contemporary filmmaking, a sensibility on good display in “To the Wonder.”
(This film is rated R.)