On Not Seeing Terrence Malick’s Art
I don’t know about you, but director Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life was one of the most profoundly Christian works of art I’ve ever seen. When I saw it, I had to see it again the next day. It shook me up. I tried several times to write about it in this space, but found that I couldn’t. I don’t know that that’s ever happened to me before, about anything. I would get started, and find I’d written and written and written, and still had barely gotten started. I finally gave up.
I know friends who saw the film, and wondered what the big deal was. My friend Damon Linker was not one of those people. He found it stunning, and if memory serves, it was he who encouraged me, as a fellow Christian, to watch it. That was one of the best pieces of advice anybody has ever given me.
Linker has written a piece about Malick’s new film, To The Wonder, that’s not so much about the film as about the failure of film critics (who have largely not liked the movie) to understand what they were watching, because of their theological and cultural illiteracy regarding Christianity. Excerpts:
If that’s all there were to it — an unimaginative plot presented in Malick’s sumptuous visual style and acted by largely mute characters who speak mainly in elliptical voiceovers — To the Wonder would be the beautiful but boring failure so many critics are saying it is.
But that’s not all there is to it. On a deeper level, the film is Malick’s meditation on the Christian vision of love — and the obstacles that we perversely place in the way of satisfying our irrepressible longing for it. Anyone who’s fallen in love is familiar with the feeling: The world appears transfigured. In the first words of the film, Marina describes it as being “newborn,” called “out of the shadows.” In a series of quick scenes filmed in Paris, the lovers touch and embrace each other bathed in radiant sunlight. In voiceover, Neil calls Marina “my sweet love… my hope.” Marina says their love unites them, makes one person out of two.
Ultimately, for Malick, the experience of falling in love grants us a glimpse of the divine — of a “Love that loves us” (as Marina twice describes it in voiceover, once at the beginning and again at the end of film). Early in the movie, Neil and Marina feel their love intertwine with the sacred when they pay a visit to the stunning church on the island of Mont Saint-Michel off the northwest coast of France, where the lovers (in Marina’s words) “climbed the steps to the wonder.” (The island and church, nicknamed “the wonder” [le merveille], gives the film its title.)
But love is not only rapture. In Malick’s Christian view, it also calls on us to sacrifice, to give ourselves over fully to the one we love.
Humanity was made for God. And he is present all around us — in the transfiguring, wondrous joy of romantic love, in self-giving sacrifice, in our suffering and the suffering of others, in the charity we offer to those in pain, in the resplendent beauty of the natural world — if only we open our eyes to see him. That, it seems, is Terrence Malick’s scandalous message.
Take it or leave it. Be moved by it or dismiss it as mystical nonsense. But please, recognize it for what it is: an ecstatic cinematic tribute to God.
Read the whole thing. Really, do. I can’t wait to see this film now. And you know, maybe I won’t like it either. But I’m pretty sure I’ll understand what the director is saying.
When I was a professional film critic, I thought from time to time how culturally provincial so many of my tribe were. Almost always secular and liberal, and often childless, they missed things in the movies that people like me saw. This wasn’t because they were bad people; it was because they saw films with different eyes, bringing to the experience different assumptions about the way the world works — and not only that, but they also bring with them, as we all do, limitations that are the result of our own ignorance of history, culture, art, and so forth.
This is normal. I feel my own ignorance of Greek mythology and classical culture acutely when I’m confronted in poetry or paintings from ages past by references that I don’t understand. Yet I know what I’m missing, and wouldn’t attempt to write about that painting or work of art without doing at least a little study. The problem with contemporary film critics, I think, is that they don’t know what they don’t know.
Take the widely-praised 1996 film Breaking The Waves. I was knocked flat by it. The movie is a meditation on the thin line between religious genius and madness, and a harrowing exploration of the meaning of sacrificial love, and the risks of passion. It is also perhaps the most dramatic cinematic illustration in my experience of the proverb, “God writes straight with crooked lines” — meaning that the divine manifests rationally through our broken humanity, though this is hard for us to perceive. Critics loved the film, but many made fun of the finale, thinking it mawkish and nonsensical (I won’t reveal it here). Yet it made perfect sense to me as a Catholic, which the film’s director, Lars von Trier, was at the time he made the movie. If you don’t understand the way Catholicism understands suffering, of course it would seem silly, that ending. But if you do, then it is magical and profound, and compels one to think deeply about the healing powers of sacrificial love.
This completely eluded many critics, no doubt for the same reason they don’t get Malick’s work. This reminds me of Camille Paglia’s lamentation about the fading power of Christianity in the American imagination. Paglia, as you know, is an atheist, but she grieves the loss to artistic consciousness and cultural literacy that’s the result of Christianity’s decline. Americans are losing the ability to understand the West’s artistic heritage, and the ethos which gave birth to works of genius.
Sadly, most critics have failed to adequately engage the Christian elements of the film, which are aplenty. Perhaps that’s because we have such a dearth of films like this, which earnestly—sans cynicism or irony—explore Christian faith without preaching or offering pat answers. (Though there are some out there).