Love gained and love lost are the subjects of “To the Wonder,” a film of simple themes, minimal dialogue and eloquent imagery. We begin with an American, in Paris. The opening scenes of Neil (Ben Affleck) and his local love, Marina (Olga Kurylenko), are grainy, color-saturated home video, the heightened spectrum of euphoric new love. That passionate flush is replaced by luminous imagery of the couple on a bridge over the Seine, and playing in parks with Marina’s young daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline).
The couple visit the medieval Benedictine abbey of Mont Saint-Michel on the Normandy coast, known as “the Wonder of the Western World.” It stands on a rocky foundation jutting into the English Channel. At high tide it is a miraculous island; when the waters recede, it looks like a castle-cathedral built on sand. The same could be said for the romance at the film’s center.
Neil, a decent, solid guy, invites mother and daughter to live with him. In the space of a cut, Marina and Tatiana are in suburban Oklahoma, unboxing belongings in Neil’s large, empty new home. The characters are pilgrims, spiritually as well as geographically. Practical matters begin to crowd out sun-dappled frolics (cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki makes even Wal-Marts and Sonic Drive-Ins look luminous). Setting down roots in the new world seems a heroic task. Perhaps impossible.
Neil, an environmental engineer, mutters about worrying levels of lead and cadmium in the water. What kind of growth can it sustain? He becomes taciturn. Marina and her daughter grow restless. “Something is missing,” her daughter says. They return to Paris, but Marina finds no satisfaction there. She will return to America, leaving Tatiana with her father, to try again. But while she was away, Neil reunited with his childhood friend, Jane (Rachel McAdams), fresh and lovely as a breeze on prairie grass. There is a wedding, temptation, a betrayal in a by-the-hour motel room.
Intercut are the sermons of the local priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem). “There is love like a stream that goes dry,” he preaches. “But there is love like a spring coming up from the earth. The first is human love; the second is divine love.”
Presiding over a mostly empty church, the priest struggles to hold fast to his belief. In unkempt neighborhoods he ministers to life’s unfortunates with care and patience, but feels his connection to God recede. An elderly parishioner tells him she will pray that he receives the gift of joy.
There’s much we don’t know about these characters, but we have enough. We don’t need their half-heard arguments made explicit to understand their uncertain grasp on love and faith. The actors’ expressions fill the gaps, and our imagination can do the rest.
Director Terrence Malick wants us to hear the whisperings of their souls, not routine dialogue. He reaches for pure cinema here, a story told through exquisitely composed frames and expressive body language. Less is more. “To the Wonder” is bold, sincere, demanding, lyrical, transcendent.