One of the more important contemporary filmmakers exploring Catholic themes is the director Terrence Malick. His film The Tree of Life, though not exactly possessing mass cultural influence, has still earned some recognition as being one of the great films to ponder Catholic themes. His most recent film, Knight of Cups, has also been subject to much commentary by Catholics.
However, in many ways, what John O’Brien, S.J. calls “Malick’s most Catholic film,” at least before Knight of Cups, is To the Wonder, which is about two men who fail in different ways to love well. It begins in France, where Neil, an American, and Marina, a French divorced mother, are in the midst of a romantic relationship. Marina and her daughter move to the United States to live with Neil. Marina and her daughter are not happy in a foreign land, and her relationship with Neil, who is reluctant to give himself to her, disintegrates. They return to France, leaving Neil behind. He promptly begins a short-lived relationship with a former lover, Jane, which also collapses because he still refuses to commit himself to anyone. Marina is still unhappy in France, and returns to Neil, marrying him in a perfunctory civil ceremony in order to live in the States.
This story is juxtaposed with that of Fr. Quintana, a priest who has difficulty performing acts of charity. He remains aloof from the needy, although he knows that he should help them. There are times at which he seems to be in a completely different movie from the other characters, and while I knew that the dual story lines were contrasting difficulties with different types of love, I could not immediately see just how they fit together. Many secular critics characterised Fr. Quintana as suffering a crisis of faith, but this fails to capture just what his struggle is. It is not that he does not know what to do, it is that he simply does not do it. More on that later.
Eros and Agape
I believe that the key to reconciling these different failures to love can be found in Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Deus caritas est (God is love). In it, he says that “love is not merely a sentiment. Sentiments come and go.” To the Wonder very closely mirrors this line when Fr. Quintana says that “love is not only a feeling. You show love,” and that emotions “come and go like clouds.”
This is not an accidental similarity. I am convinced that Malick is deliberately alluding to this encyclical, as his film explores the same concerns as the encyclical’s first section. In this first section, Benedict describes two dimensions of love: eros and agape. Eros is “ascending” love, which “tends to rise ‘in ecstasy’ towards the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves; yet for this very reason it calls for a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing.” Eros is directed at a particular person, and leads the lover out of his or her own self.
Agape is a descending love from God that “becomes concern and care for the other. No longer is it self-seeking, a sinking in the intoxication of happiness; instead it seeks the good of the beloved: it becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice.”
Now, these two dimensions of vertical love should not be separated from each other. An eros that does not seek the good of the other is in danger of reducing love itself into mere lust, and thus turning the other person into a commodity to be acquired. As Benedict says,
Even if eros is at first mainly covetous and ascending, a fascination for the great promise of happiness, in drawing near to the other, it is less and less concerned with itself, increasingly seeks the happiness of the other, is concerned more and more with the beloved, bestows itself and wants to “be there for” the other. The element of agape thus enters into this love, for otherwise eros is impoverished and even loses its own nature.
Agape, on the other hand, must be directed at someone particular. One can want all people to receive what is good, but when it is time to love them, one must be able to look at a particular person’s particular situation in order to best help them. Love must be directed at specific persons.
Neil and Fr. Quintana
In To the Wonder, Neil possess eros but not agape, while Fr. Quintana has agape but not eros. Neil is attracted to Marina and Jane, but he cannot become less concerned with himself in order to seek that happiness of those women. In reference to their relationship, Jane says that he made it into “nothing. Pleasure. Lust.” Because he similarly does not give himself totally to Marina, who is already profoundly isolated as a foreigner, she does not even have a close ally in her own home. He is not somebody to whom Marina can turn in her spiritual crises; she knows that, as a divorced woman, she cannot remarry, but he offers her no consolation. Instead of giving her spiritual support, he marries her to solve her practical problem of needing a green card. He does not give himself to Marina in marriage, but instead makes a superficial commitment in order to let her live in the States, even while he expects some sort of physical intimacy in return. This lukewarm arrangement must end in tears, as it does when Marina has an affair and he decides to divorce her, despite her reliance on him.
Fr. Quintana, possessing agape but not eros, knows to desire the good for other people. He says that there is something of God in each person, but is never able to see this himself. He does not love them individually. Many of the needy people in his parish are infirm or disabled, living in neighbourhoods filled with garbage. They are victims of a throwaway culture that has no use for them, and Fr. Quintana does not yet see how to love these apparently useless people. Accordingly, his parishioners see that he has no joy in his ministry. At most, he goes through the motions of charity, with little true concern for many of the people he helps. When a woman comes to the rectory to see him, he hides in the shadows so she thinks the house is empty. He knows he should greet her, but cannot bring himself to do so. While priests certainly deserve time to themselves, this scene portrays his refusal to greet the woman, despite her unpleasant aggressiveness, as a failure. O’Brien points out that Fr. Quintana warns his parishioners against the vice of acedia, which “shrugs its shoulders at taking the spiritual life seriously, preferring the apparent safety of mediocrity,” but when he does not answer the door, he falls to that same sin: he does not commit to giving that love that he believes he must give to the people who most need it, and remains closed in on himself in the shadows of his home.
The loves united
To the Wonder climaxes when Fr. Quintana prays the Breastplate of St. Patrick. He prays that Christ be with him, be on all sides of him, that our lives may reflect God, and that God may shine through us. This prayer helps him to see the face of Jesus in everyone he meets. Not only the mentally disabled woman who cannot hear God, the old man who cannot walk, and the dying woman are no longer simply a drain on society’s resources, but all persons who reflect the image of God. He now knows that he can in fact love them specifically, and need not close himself off from others. Though he remains quiet, this quietness no longer reflects joylessness and detachment, but self-effacement in the face of others’ needs.
In the same way that Fr. Quintana discovers the dimension of love that he had lacked, Neil learns what it is to have agape. During the sequence in which Fr. Quintana prays the Breastplate, he and Neil serve the needy of the parish. Eros and agape are finally united. Neil comes to Marina, and kneels before her, apparently asking her forgiveness. He is able to recognise how he has wronged her, and now wanting what is good for her and their relationship, he repents of his evil. He is no longer hesitant and distant from Marina, but makes himself vulnerable to her, asking for her mercy.
Eros directed to God
However, despite this reconciliation, To the Wonder ends with Marina leaving Neil for good. The tension of her first departure is absent, but this makes her return to France even more mysterious. I would suggest that those who have read Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited might see a parallel between Marina and Julia. In Brideshead Revisited, Julia, who has spent years away from the Church, has divorced and intends to marry a divorced man called Charles, witnesses her father’s deathbed conversion and decides not to marry again. Having seen a glimpse of God’s love, she will not chase a shadow of it in Charles.
Similarly, in To the Wonder, before her affair, Marina receives Reconciliation and the Eucharist. As Jon Kearney at Word on Fire says, “Whether she is in a state of spiritual desolation or consolation, Marina believes deeply in the treasury of grace available to her through the Sacraments.” Although she attends Mass and marries Neil in an unidentified church after their civil marriage, she knows that her marriage to Neil is a barrier to her full participation in the Church, where she has her moments of greatest peace, and she always desires a fuller participation in the Church’s worship. Therefore, though she is reconciled to a transformed Neil, she severs this relationship with him that will continue to weigh heavily on her conscience. As Benedict says, “Eros needs to be disciplined and purified if it is to provide not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns.” Marina chooses to discipline her yearning for God, to purify her eros, and make Him the primary object of her longing. She commits herself fully to God. Fr. Quintana says that one’s love may be transformed into something higher, and this is what happens to Marina. Near the film’s ends her face is struck with a bright light, in contrast to the soft natural light in which the rest of the film is shot. She is illuminated with supernatural light, the light Fr. Quintana could not feel.
Overall, it is no shock that critics unfamiliar with papal encyclicals might not possess the vocabulary necessary to engage To the Wonder, but it is certainly a film in which Catholics, if nobody else, should find rich thematic material. To the Wonder is not entertainment, or a movie with an easily digestible message. Malick’s style is impressionistic and abstract; there is incredibly little dialogue, most of the speaking happens in French and Spanish voiceovers, and much of the plot is only suggested. However, it is what David Roark at the Roger Ebert website calls a cinematic liturgy that seeks “to orient the hearts and minds of viewers toward the Christian story—a way of seeing and interacting with God and the world.”