Terrence Malick, writer and director of "The Tree of Life," returns with his first romance and his first film set in present day. "To The Wonder" explores love and God — and what happens when either becomes nonexistent in our lives.
The story begins in Paris when Neil (Ben Affleck), an American engineer, falls in love with Marina (Olga Kurylenko). Malick offers us no details of the characters' lives before their meeting but rather shows us glimpses of their passionate affair as they embrace and dance through Paris parks and streets. The two bond on a spiritual level when they visit the church on the island of Mont Saint-Michel off the coast of Normandy. There the couple climbs the steps to "The Wonder," the church's nickname and the origin of the film's title.
Neil moves Marina and her 10-year-old daughter from Paris to a suburban development in a small Oklahoma town. The couple's situation becomes ugly, and they begin to argue and drift apart, but cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki makes sure that the supermarkets, strip malls and fields of Oklahoma are every bit as breathtaking as the City of Light.
When her visa runs out, without the consideration of marriage by Neil, Marina and her daughter are forced to move back to France. Neil begins dating Jane (Rachel McAdams), a friend from his childhood, but ultimately he can't live up to her expectations of commitment and reunites with Marina after learning that she has fallen on hard times in France.
Upon her return to Oklahoma from Paris, Marina and Neil are married, but the bond of marriage doesn't prevent them from falling into the same patterns they had before. They look for marital help from Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a local priest who's on his own search for love. He devotes his time to sick, drug-addicted and imprisoned members of the community, but struggles to feel the love of God in his work. Bardem's performance is moving, and despite limited screen time, his struggle is an allegory for that of the main love story.
The film's notable lack of dialogue means the narrative moves forward through body language, facial expressions and settings. Affleck's acting is stiff and vacant for the most part, which works because his character is emotionally closed off and struggles to express himself. In contrast, Kurylenko is constantly in motion, dancing her way through every scene as if she were a ballerina. While she can depict a woman living in bliss about her newfound love, she also nails the expressions of one who has been emotionally crushed under the weight of abandonment. We hardly need the whispered voiceovers to let us know her enjoyment or anguish.
The house that the couple lives in is symbolic of their relationship. Neil is constantly doing work on the house, but it remains almost completely unfurnished throughout the film. There is no sense of permanence — their love is fleeting. Neil works to put up and maintain the fence around their home, a metaphor for his own emotional wall.
On the surface, the film is about the search for love, but it is the love of God that is desired most of all. Father Quintana's longing to feel God's love in his work is the most explicit. Jane's first request of Neil is that he pray with her; although she longs for companionship, she will not be satisfied if the relationship doesn't include God. Marina wants Neil to treat love as a divine command rather than a lustful force, but his absence of faith makes that impossible.
Malick's use of gorgeous tracking shots, long gazes and scant dialogue might lead some viewers to dismiss the film as visually stunning but lacking real narrative. However, beneath the cinematography, there is a cohesive love story full of subtext just waiting to be interpreted.