To the Wonder unfolds as an avalanche of tenderness. Much of the film is shot during the ‘magic hours’ when the world shines with warmth and rest, brought to dance by the everyday ballet of its central character’s joy in life, accompanied by hauntingly beautiful music. Simultaneously, Wonder is an almost unbearably raw look at the trauma of the human attempt to love faithfully in the midst of ordinary life and human failure.
Somehow the film enables this tenderness and trauma to intertwine by not distracting the viewer with extraordinary events or fabricated climaxes. In a sense, nothing “happens” in Wonder; the story could be anyone’s (the characters are never named). And yet so much is done and chosen: we see these fallible lovers traveling, working, attending church, eating, swimming, confessing, making love, grocery shopping, taking eucharist, visiting neighbors, washing dishes, fighting, separating, getting married, betraying, divorcing, living. Malick invites us to look at our lives with new eyes, like a visual-spiritual therapy – a kind of retraining of our gaze to patiently pay attention to the grief and glory of all things, from a flower’s blossom to the mystery of love in its pain and passion.
Midway through the film, Ben Affleck’s character is seen reading a book before bed – Martin Heidegger’s philosophical magnum opus Being and Time (1927). For Heidegger, as clearly for Malick, the sheer openness of the world to man’s personal concern and questioning is a cause for astonishment. Indeed, the very fact that man has a ‘world’ at all that hums and shimmers with significance, rather than being a worldless thing like a stone that sits silent in empty space, is already wondrous. The film’s title announces a subtle exploration of vision oriented by this Heideggerian insight.
Still, Malick’s film goes far beyond Heidegger and presents itself as something of a spiritual confession reminiscent of Augustine’s. For Malick, it is clear that the source and sustaining power of this wonder of personal love is the gift of God – not “our own experiment.” Early on, Kurylenko’s character asks, “What is this love that loves us, that comes from nowhere, from all around?” The reply comes later, when the priest (Javier Bardem) admonishes, “Awaken the love, the divine presence which sleeps in each man, each woman…Know each other in that love which never changes.” Wonder leaves no doubt that for Malick the wondrous “love that loves us” is God’s love, modeled on Christ’s sacrifice for sinners.
And yet God’s presence is painfully absent throughout the film. The priest – a devout man who ministers the eucharist, serves the poor, visits convicts, the sick, and the dying – prays, “Will you be like a stream that dries up? Why do you turn your back? All I see is destruction, failure, ruin.” After taking the sacrament, Kurylenko’s character prays, “My God, what a cruel war. I find two women inside me: one full of love for you; the other pulls me toward the earth.” Immediately afterward she cheats on her husband with the local carpenter. Trauma infects tenderness, absence the wonder, lust love.
But if Wonder whispers a confession of sin, it is also a subtle, almost secular confession of faith in the victory of Christ’s love and forgiveness. The final word of the film – “Love that loves us: Thank you” – announces that gratitude can defeat resentment and resignation in our wondrous but wounded world. Love, with all of its risks of failure and loss, can be chosen as a divine command and gift. Encompassing these themes, the film’s ending is one of the most remarkable in recent memory.