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To the Wonder by Terrence Malick

June 23, 2013

I have spent circa twenty years of my life as a film buff regretting Malick’s retirement from filmmaking, then in 1998 Malick returned to action and as a result I have spent these last fifteen years puzzled by the intermittence of beauty, awkwardness and unintentionally comic moments in his recent films and while I had found a lot to love watching The Thin Red Line, The New World and The Tree of Life, To the Wonder disappointed me a lot: Malick’s usual cinematic gymnastics (quite a literal exercise for Olga Kurylenko‘s character) but very few interesting ideas or thoughts to chew. Malick is a quite ordinary filmmaker when you consider the narrative structure of his films, his touch resides into intercrossing plain stories and visually challenging imagery with hints to philosophy and religion; To the Wonder’s basic plot is the more classic and ordinary one you can imagine: the arc of a love affair, man and woman meet, fall in love, love ends. Alas Malick’s interest was not in telling a love story but inserting one in his philosophical fairy tale world.

Malick and a love story sound to my ears like a contradiction in terms, the deranged love stories he depicted in Badlands and Days of Heaven worked thanks to their deranged characters, in those cases the love story was incidental and of devious origin, but to make To the Wonder’s characters alive it would have required real passion and steam, Malick gives us nothing of that, Kurylenko’s talkative and always twirling Marina and Affleck’s expressionless and silent Neil are both lifeless – not to mention the secondary characters like the unexpected priest played by Javier Bardem or the out of nowhere Italian witch played by Romina Mondello. In the editing room Malick has cut a lot of characters out of the film – Michael Sheen, Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weisz and others had roles in it – doing so he has enhanced the weakness of the Marina/Neil relationship which is now at the center of our attention, maybe Father Quintana (Bardem) and Anna (Mondello) would have benefited by the presence of other confusing characters. The only scope of the film seems to be leaving us with things to wonder about: what is this Babel where everyone speaks a different tongue? What to make of the contrast – look at the images above – between the sands of Mont Saint-Michel and those of Bartlesville, Oklahoma? Is Malick’s love of nature an idea relating to the Physico-theological (“Watch Maker”) Proof of God’s Existence?

Mont Saint-Michel’s cathedral and Bartlesville’s Phillips Petroleum Company make sense when you think of Malick’s knowledge of Heidegger and Heidegger’s idea that technology (oil here) is dangerous and only art (the cathedral now) can save our epoch: but when I need to think of all this when I watch a film it only means the film didn’t work for me. Malick takes himself too seriously, he should read Calvino’s Cosmicomics – those stories contain many ideas similar to those explored by Malick but Calvino’s light touch makes them real and full of life, so please mister Malick: let them fall and sink in the sands of Mont Saint-Michel, let Affleck’s hand be broken by his car’s wing mirror, otherwise I can’t take you seriously.

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