To deeply study and understand the work of Malick one must fully explore Christian theology. Critics of Malick explore the philosophical avenue that his films do present, but much academic writing is lacking a thorough religious examination of his films. For as much a part as religion plays in his films, this is a shame. There are many frameworks to analyze and critique the films of Malick, but the one employed here will be viewing To the Wonder through theological and religious ideals, specifically Christian. Critics of Malick may have gotten away with writing The Tree of Life off as “vague spirituality”, but To the Wonder proves to be overtly Christian.
To the Wonder touches on ideas of alienation, the nature of love, the vanity of life itself, but overwhelmingly it presents the audience with an observation on the war between the spirit and the flesh.
Many critics have praised the film’s rapturous opening at Mont St. Michel (the wonder) and noted how it displays Neil and Marina’s transcendent-like love. This however, is a misreading of the film’s beginning. The film opens with quiet, ominous and eerie music. Through Marina’s voiceover of a flashback on the train to Mont St. Michel, viewers know that something will go sour in Marina and Neil’s relationship. She says, “Newborn. I open my eyes. I melt. Into the eternal light.” The audience doesn’t know what has happened yet, but from the very beginning they know that they are now watching the story of Marina’s fall from grace and rebirth told through her perspective. Marina then says, “You brought me out of the shadows. Lifted me from the ground.” The “you” she is speaking to is ambiguous here, but it cannot be Neil. Logically, she cannot be speaking to Neil because this narration is being spoken after everything that has occurred with Neil.
The depiction of Neil and Marina making love in the earlier scenes of the movie are striking and somewhat strange. It isn’t violent, but it is full of passion. There is fierceness there, an animal-like sense of movement. Neil wraps a thin veil around Marina’s neck and face. He pulls her legs towards him as she crawls on the ground. There is emphasis on her strained neck. Afterwards she lies on the floor with tears in her eyes. Is this it? Is she giving herself to him this easily? And immediately after this we cut to images of rides at a carnival going round and round. The idea that the scene is at a carnival makes it all the more menacing. It’s showing the cyclical nature of sin. Marina has been in a previous relationship that left her empty and destitute, and round and round she goes to another man who isn’t providing for her the love that she needs. “Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool who repeats his folly” (Proverbs 26:11). Later, we will see Marina engage in an affair that she even knew she didn’t want.
After the film’s first act, another woman named Jane enters the story. She is a woman who Neil knew from his childhood and is back in town while Marina has returned to live in Paris. Jane is in a similar place as Marina. She had a previous relationship that left her destitute and with a child, who tragically was lost. She wants to be vulnerable with Neil and there is a beautiful moment when she and Neil are in the midst of wild buffalo. It’s a moment of tranquility and vulnerability in the midst of such force and violent power. It’s very much a mirror into her situation with Neil.
Marina then says, “What do we do? Where are we when we’re there?” There is something about the love that each of them know that is fleeting. In this time of doubt, a stranger is introduced to Marina. The seed of adultery is planted in her mind and it germinates in the new spring soil. During this time Marina speaks with her Italian friend who offers her self-liberating rhetoric in order to break free from the chains of this world. According to her friend, “I am my own experiment.” This doesn’t resonate with Marina. Something still is lacking. She cannot find freedom in herself. It has to come from something outside of her.
In a closing monologue, Marina makes an appeal to God and describes the tension in her heart: “My God, what a cruel war. I find two women inside me. One full of love for you. The other pulls me down towards the earth.” As she speaks the visuals are of a man fishing on a pond. The last image seen is a fishing lure hanging right under the surface of the water. James 1:14-15 says, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” Immediately after the shot of the fishing lure, Marina meets the stranger from before and commits adultery with him in a motel room.
Malick is showing Marina’s war with sin. He is showing the struggle between life in the spirit and life in the flesh that Paul describes in Romans 8:5-10: “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law, indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” She emerges from the dark motel room into the light of day. Her life in the flesh is exposed. As she was in the hotel room with the stranger there was a shot of her hand covering the sun in the sky. She was trying to escape the exposure of the light. Earlier in the film a prisoner sits in jail with the light shining on his face and says, “That sun is just killing me—right in my eyes.” The light is more than just natural; it’s spiritual. Marina tries to hide her sinful actions, and even the prisoner feels the conviction of his sin when it is exposed in the light of truth.
The film comes to a climax at this monologue, and all the characters experience reconciliation and redemption through what Father Quintana says. He says, “Christ be with me. Christ before me. Christ behind me. Christ in me. Christ beneath me. Christ above me. Christ on my right. Christ on my left. Christ in the heart. Thirsting. We thirst. Flood our souls with your spirit and life so completely that our lives may only be a reflection of yours. Shine through us. Show us how to seek you. We were made to see you.” All this is set to a montage of the father fleshing out the Sermon on the Mount. He attends to the meek and poor in spirit, and this message is what brings the peace to all of the characters’ lives. Neil learned to love from this and was able to forgive Marina. Marina, after experiencing grace, was left only to say, “Love that loves us. Thank you.” She arises and steps into the light. She no longer observes slivers of light through the holes of a wooden fence. She walks through a field alone and a beam of light flashes upon her face. Now what Mariana says at the film’s opening is brought to whole. “I melt. Into your eternal light.”