The Germans have a word for it: sehnsucht. It means a deep longing and profound sense of something missing, born of the tension between an acknowledgment of life’s imperfections and the search for something larger, purer, more in tune with your soul. It’s a little like being homesick for a place you’ve never seen; C.S. Lewis called it a “desire for our own far-off country,” and said that even talking about was a little embarrassing because it meant uncovering “the inconsolable secret” in each of us. The word doesn’t have a direct English translation, which means we’re left with fragments of ideas to describe an emotional state that is itself fragmented and yearning, caught between memory and uncertainty. It’s easy to get there but hard to stay.
This is the problem that Terrence Malick has been working to solve for most of his life and career. Through six films across 40 years, he’s returned again and again to questions of faith and punishment, of mercy and grace, and of the way man fights to make the world in his own image despite the world’s refusal to be shaped. As he’s pushed deeper into the territory, he’s refined his aesthetic by abandoning traditional narrative in favor of experimental montages that suggest stories rather than tell them outright. To the Wonder is Malick’s least narratively cohesive film to date, but in a lot of ways it’s his most advanced work in terms of the honesty on display and the way it aligns with ideas and fears that no doubt leave him haunted. His epic, soul-searching The Tree of Life only came out a couple of years ago, and now he’s released an even more elliptical and keening film about the crippling power of doubt and the desperate search for faith. His hallmarks are all here — the deliberate pacing, the loving framing of nature, the bursts of light and classical music — but the film works as well as it does because Malick’s so gifted at evoking an emotional state born of the combination of all those things and more. No one else makes movies quite like this, and that’s the whole point: This is a heartfelt story told by a specific person. Anyone else’s journey would have to look different.
The film’s arranged in rangy sections, but the gist is this: a man (Ben Affleck) and a woman (Olga Kurylenko) fall in love in Paris and roam the French countryside. Their names are Neil and Marina, but it doesn’t matter. They’re really just man and woman here, two opposing but equally volatile forces trying to reconcile themselves to each other. He’s American and she’s French, and eventually they move to a generic town in the midwestern U.S. to try life there. Also in town is a priest (Javier Bardem) struggling to overcome a faith that’s grown cold in the face of daily suffering and poverty. When Neil and Marina’s relationship falters, he seeks temporary solace with Jane (Rachel McAdams), whom he knew when he was a kid. In terms of hard plot, that’s about it, but putting it down in clear, choppy phrases makes it sound so much more tangible and less interesting than what Malick’s done. He unveils the story in erratic bursts of voice-over, quiet dialogue that’s mostly muted in transitions, and scenes of people physically exploring each other or the world around them.
Is To the Wonder a good film? Yes. Is there some other “good” film we could weigh it against to get some sense of its style or plans? Not at all. I wrestled with To the Wonder as it unfolded, working to stay with its scattered people and broken voice-overs, and I was captivated. It’s a challenging, difficult film, and I found my responses or lack thereof different than they might have been in any other instance. Malick’s most at home using people as symbols: everyone here wears solid colors, as if to highlight their use as pieces of a broader puzzle (as well as complement the stunning photography). This also means that face-to-face conversations or basic exposition — the building blocks of a conventional film — are often the weakest parts of To the Wonder. The entire thing is unhurried, but the only moments that really feel slow are those when Malick isn’t sure how to link certain people together or transition from one place to the next. In other words, the film is least sure of itself on those occasions when it veers toward something more recognizable, and when it downshifts from moral inquiry into doubt its own existence. It’s only when it returns to Malick’s blend of music and image, of visual poetry, that it regains its power.
And that visual/aural blend is really something. Shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, who also served as cinematographer on The New World and The Tree of Life, the film is as much at home amid squalor and ruin as it is nature and light. It’s the interplay between the two that drives much of the film’s emotional currents, as the central characters — especially the priest — wonder to themselves how the world can be filled with such horror and beauty at the same time. “You have to struggle with yourself,” the priest says, though he might as well be speaking for Malick as for all of us. He and the others ask questions that they can’t even begin to answer, feeling their way through crises of faith and looking for the source of some external love whose effects they see daily but whose presence remains unseen. When Malick glides between his sad cast of searchers, weaving their prayers together with images of the world around them, you can feel some spark of the warmth they’re trying to find. You really do feel it. Malick’s made a film about meditation that itself requires some semblance of that state from the viewer, but there’s so much to gain from even briefly giving yourself over to the film.
Like I said, the film’s not short on Malickian flair. Yet these touches — the naturalism, the whispering, the probing and incomplete thoughts — are what’s so special about Malick’s movies. He roots his stories in nature because nature is the best and purest backdrop we have for asking daring and terrible questions about grace and theology and the limits of love, and all those things we care about so much that we can barely talk about them without feeling embarrassed or exposed. Malick’s made a movie about a man, a woman, and a servant of God searching for some road back to Eden or just a version of their lives where they can make sense of the world around them, and he’s so honest and sad about the process that it takes real focus not to shut down in the face of such openness. It’s not a surprise to learn that several other actors and actresses who appeared in the film were eliminated in the editing process. Malick himself might not even know what he’s looking for until he goes searching, and the searching is what he’s after. To the Wonder is a celebration of that search, and it builds to moments of sustained divinity and forgiveness and prayer that — I don’t even know how to finish that sentence. They’re about what Thomas Wolfe called the “lost lane-end into heaven,” but it’s really just a sense of coming home. Of peace.