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Monday, April 15, 2013

To the Wonder

Ben Affleck stars in Terrence Malick’s meditation on love

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No place is more romantic than Paris, and when a couple as attractive as Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) fall in love while walking the quay along the Seine, violins would tremble like heart strings in any Hollywood movie. But Neil and Marina are protagonists in a film by Terrence Malick, To the Wonder, and Hollywood is the last place on the director's mind. With To the Wonder, Malick continues to challenge the cinematic conventions of storytelling. It's not as difficult as his previous film, Tree of Life, but forces viewers to watch carefully and make intelligent connections. To the Wonder is a love story—bristling with exhilaration and depression—that dares to wonder about our inadequate definitions of love.

The cast acted their parts without a script. Marina's internal musings in French (with English subtitles) provides an elliptical narration, and dialogue in either French or English is sparse. To the Wonder is a visual poem whose rhyming images link scenes in ways obvious and less so. When Marina runs in a Paris park toward the scale model of France's gift to the U.S., the Statue of Liberty, she is transplanted in the next scene to Neil’s hometown in Oklahoma. More open-ended is the meaning of the twirling Paris carnival ride replicated by the moving parts of the oil well pumps, which stud the flat badlands of her new home in America's heartland. Shot with dazzling compositions in natural light, To the Wonder lets us feel Marina's sense of the strangeness of a place where McMansions abut the prairie and longhorn cattle are paraded down Main Street.

The towering feeling of romance, with the playful eroticism of lovers exploring each other, is mirrored in a pair of couples—Neil and Marina and then, after ardor fades to irritation, Neil and Jane (Rachel McAdams), the local girl he picks up with after Marina storms home to Paris. The growing distance between Neil and Marina is signaled by his quick glance at the blond on the far side of a public pool, foreshadowing Jane. Once again, romantic love, perhaps humanity's most primal drug, is a high from which everyone crashes—again and again.

To the Wonder's other major character is Father Quintana, a Roman Catholic priest played in dour low key by Javier Bardem. An elderly parishioner promises to pray for him to receive "the gift of joy" he so evidently lacks. The priest trudges through his ministry of compassion, aware but never touched by "the spiritual light," as an African American janitor puts it. He is tormented by acting out the feelings he doesn't have, even as he supplies To the Wonder with the often-paradoxical axioms of a religion that questions the self-satisfaction of ordinary life. Can "love" be transformed into something higher? Quintana demands of his congregation. Marina, at least, is searching for an answer.

Opens Friday, April 19, Downer Theatre.