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Terrence Malick, Theologian: The Intimidating, Exhilarating Religiosity of "The Tree of Life" and "To the Wonder"

On the increasingly apparent theological shades of Malick's cinematic philosophy, which have been infrequently investigated.

In 2011, the same year that The Tree of Life finally arrived in movie theaters, a collection of articles was published under the title Terrence Malick: Film and Philosophy. In terms of the latter half of that titular equation, a quick perusal of the book's index reveals the usual suspects: Kant, Hegel, and, of course, Heidegger. Thoreau gets a mention, as do Nietzsche and Marx. Yet absent from this volume on Malick as cinematic philosopher are Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, and Bernard of Clairvaux, or any prominent theologian. The Bible itself appears very sparingly: a couple references to Genesis and Exodus, and a note observing the relevance of Psalm 90 to Badlands and Days of Heaven. For all the ubiquitous discussion of the philosophical character of Malick's films, the increasingly apparent theological shades of Malick's philosophy have been investigated relatively infrequently in film scholarship and almost never, except in passing, in non-academic film criticism. Film reviewers often observe that certain movies are religious allegories and roughly delimit the contours of the perceived allegory, but their trepidation in proceeding further from such cursory observations evinces a wariness felt by many, if not most, critics with regard to the serious consideration of theology in contemporary cinema; or perhaps, in some cases, reviewers are working from the not unreasonable presumption that their reading audiences have little interest in the elucidation of such cryptic points.

At any rate, this approach admittedly serves film critics well enough most of the time. The number of key, current filmmakers—at least in the (post-) Christian West—who place questions of theology at the fore of their work is miniscule. In fact, looking at the history of cinema, the list of canonical Western filmmakers who reflect seriously on such questions is arguably quite short: Dreyer, Bresson, Bergman, Tarkovsky, occasionally Scorsese, and perhaps a small handful besides, but not many more, to be sure. (Again, I want to emphasize that I am referring primarily to Western directors engaging points of Christian theology. As Scott Foundas perceptively observed in contrasting the critical receptions of The Tree of Life and Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, the squeamishness that has characterized much of the critical response to the religious aspects of Malick's film has not seemed to inform the reaction to Apichatpong's fellow Palme d'Or-winner nor, generally, other cinematic representations of “Eastern” religion or spirituality—be it in Thai or Japanese, Taiwanese or Iranian cinemas. The higher degree of religiosity in the films of directors outside the West is accepted more or less as a given based on their geo-cultural contexts, and most Western critics, more equipped to exoticize and/or politicize these religiously-inflected films, are basically fine with it.) Malick, however, is the great exception to this general rule; to ignore or only perfunctorily note the centrality of not just "spirituality" or "philosophy," but Christian theology specifically, in his films is to miss much of the point.

This is a problem that I hope to raise here, but one that, I readily admit, this brief consideration will obviously not rectify. Also, the Terrence Malick: Film and Philosophy volume might be partly excused on the grounds that, given the timing of its publication, it was unable to include any commentary on The Tree of Life. Not that, by any stretch, Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), and The New World (2005) are blissfully unburdened by religion. But Malick's long-in-the-works semi-autobiographical masterpiece, with its opening epigram from the Book of Job, seemed to be the moment when it became nearly impossible to write about Malick without touching upon, however briefly and superficially, the religiosity of his work. This is a problem that is discernibly reflected in the reception of The Tree of Life and especially To the Wonder (2012). Aesthetes seduced by the exceptional visual and aural beauty of Malick's work, but squeamish with regard to a Christian worldview they dismiss as “New Age-y” largely because they don't know any better, find his new work didactic, incoherent, or both. Malick—filmmaker, philosopher, and theologian—is interested in the Big Questions, the sorts of ontological and epistemological queries that you just don't ask—outside of possibly, occasionally certain dark corners of academia—in polite, secular, post-whatever discourse, and certainly not in the antiseptic sphere of popular culture.

In The Tree of Life, Malick seemed to ask (himself and his audience), “What is the relationship between individual memory, collective memory, the past, and history? Between remembrance and recovery? Where are the points of connection or intersection between these elements, and where do they diverge? How can the experience of any single human life be meaningfully situated within the context of not just human history, but the existence of the universe? Of course, Malick does not, in the space of 139 minutes, fully or directly answer all of these pressing points. But in his intense seriousness of purpose, Malick is closer to, say, Augustine writing his Confessions than he is to most of his contemporaries. Near the end of the fourth century, C.E., Augustine wrote, “Great is the force of memory, exceedingly great, O my god, a spreading limitless room within me. Who can reach its uttermost depth? Yet it is a faculty of my soul and belongs to my nature. In fact I cannot totally grasp all that I am. Thus the mind is not large enough to contain itself: but where can that part of it be which it does not contain?” This introspective passage from the tenth book of the Confessions sounds remarkably akin the poetic musings of Malick's characters, whispered in voice-over and as if in prayer, on the film's soundtrack; the sense of perplexed wonder that Augustine expressed with regard to the elusive power of memory is right in tune with Malick's wonder-struck, partly autobiographical memory narrative.

Above: Vittore Carpaccio's Vision of St. Augustine (1507).

Similarly, Augustine's complex, problematic doctrine of grace seems, perhaps, to inform the film's central dialectic of “nature” and “grace” at least as importantly as the views of Hegel, if not Heidegger. Augustine's fierce contention that, in short, grace was granted to the worthy few by the wholly mysterious election of God, never earned through individual, voluntary action is—as much as God's cruel challenge to Job—a bitter pill of Christian dogmatism for theologically-inclined thinkers (like Malick) to swallow, and I strongly suspect that is one of the many difficult ideas that Malick was grappling with in The Tree of Life. In arriving at this controversial position, Augustine specifically scrutinized 1 Tim. 2:4 (“[God] Who will have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth”), deliberating on what exactly Paul meant when he wrote “all.” Malick, for his part, is as interested in the second half of the verse as the first: What is “knowledge”? What is “the truth”?

Like Augustine's aforementioned Confessions, The Tree of Life is a poignant harmonization of the painfully intimate and the theologically massive and expansive. The share of credit that Malick's film did manage to receive from critics—some of it boldly unapologetic, much of it begrudgingly admiring (with the film's religious themes typically cited among reviewers' reservations)—focused squarely on Malick's towering ambition and the undeniable hugeness of his filmic vision. Comparisons to Kubrick's 2001 emphasized this virtue, which The Tree of Life clearly exemplified. To the Wonder, meanwhile, has left itself vulnerable by appearing “slight,” “minor,” “incomplete.” There is no cosmic trip back to the moment of the Big Bang, no dinosaurs, and no time-melting, grace-infused denouement. There is also, seemingly, less conventional narrative coherence and certainly less dialogue.

Above: Master of the Registrum Gregorii's Gregory the Great Inspired by the Dove (983).

This is due, in large part, to Malick's apparent biblical model this time out. For The Tree of Life, it's the Book of Job, a big, bold, dramatic text. To the Wonder, by contrast, seems to take its inspiration from the Song of Songs, a leaner and more lyrical text—at once, an erotic poem recited between lovers and (according to centuries of Christian exegetes) an allegorical representation of the relationship between Christ and the Church, or, as the influential twelfth-century theologian Bernard of Clairvaux proposed, between God and the soul. Some six centuries before Bernard, the early medieval pope and sainted doctor of the Church, Gregory the Great, wrote in his exposition on the Song of Songs that “allegory is a kind of pulley, which enables a soul separated from God by a vast distance to be lifted up to God.” This conception of the function of allegory seems to guide Malick in his work as a filmmaker, perhaps never more discernibly than in his latest. Certainly, there are strong aspects of biblical allegory in his earlier films, especially Days of Heaven, but here, the Song of Songs seems to dictate not just the narrative content, but the form, of Malick's movie. Indeed, To the Wonder, much to the bemused consternation of many viewers, is not really a love story; although the film was marketed as a love triangle of sorts, reminiscent of the dynamic familiar from Days of Heaven and The New World, Rachel McAdams' “other woman” is effectively a cameo appearance.

Rather, To the Wonder, true to its ancient source, is a love song. Its narrative logic is specifically poetic. Its structure is built carefully upon a cadence of clear, beautiful rhymes and faint yet significant echoes; its entrances and exits, its tender highs and lows of romantic and spiritual feeling, are as perfectly timed and breathlessly sustained as the lovers' back-and-forth in the Song of Songs. The mood of the film shifts mercurially as presence (the ebullience and unity of sexual consummation, the tenderness of shared companionship) shifts to absence: “In my bed by night I sought him whom my soul loveth: I sought him, and I found him not,” laments the woman in the Song of Songs, “I will rise, and will go about the city: in the streets and the broad ways I will seek him whom my soul loveth: I sought him, and I found him not” (3:1-2). The desperate repetition of the refrain is echoed not only in the melancholic behavior of Olga Kurylenko's Marina as she misses (the touch, the company of) Ben Affleck's Neil during their times of separation, but also in the mournful acknowledgment by Javier Bardem's Father Quintana that his faith in God's love has been weakened, if not lost. Malick, in effect, has it both ways, in these loosely intertwined narrative strands: the erotic interaction of the man and woman in the Song of Songs is re-played in the voices and physical movements of Kurylenko and Affleck (whose characters, though named in the credits, are nearly as archetypal as the biblical lovers), while the Song's allegorical representation of Christ and his Church is embodied in Bardem's priest. At the same time, Malick is actively reflecting on the theological meaning of one of the Old Testament's strangest, most elusive—if brief and pleasurable—books. He is asking no smaller or less significant a question here than, what is the nature of love—what is the substance of it? Is the love that animates the bodies of lovers, that provokes such inexplicable despair in the absence of the other's form, the same love that binds man to God and God to his creations? One need not believe to find the negotiation of these ideas fascinating, even exhilarating, especially when guided by Malick's singular poetic precision and uncommon thoughtfulness.

Above: Virgin and Child with Saints in an Enclosed Garden (Follower of Robert Campin, 1440/1460).

Early in the film, as Neil and Marina ascend “to the wonder,” up the steps of the abbey at Mont Saint-Michel to the ornate majesty of the abbey's cloister, the shot is reminiscent of the cold beauty of the perfectly sculpted horticultural shapes that Pocahontas observes in England, near the end of The New World. While such a self-reflexive nod may have been intentional on Malick's part, the deeper allusion in both shots, and particularly in To the Wonder, is to the literary idea of the hortus conclusus, the “enclosed garden.” This trope, prominently used by Chaucer among countless others in the Western canon, has been the subject of intense examination, especially by feminist theorists. Lacking the space to rehearse at any length the many and varied arguments concerning this metaphor, suffice it to say that, embedded within the notion of the hortus conclusus is both the idea of the female body as a site of enclosure and the “enclosed” spatial quality of the female social experience. This loaded image dates back to at least the Song of Songs, wherein the man effuses, “my sister, my spouse, is a garden enclosed, a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up” (4:14). Though, at this point in film, it is Marina's voice we hear on the soundtrack, it is Neil—an American in France, smitten by this Parisian beauty—who is situating Marina squarely as the object of his desire, of his wondrous gaze: a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up, a captivating woman who moves ever as if dancing to some song audible only to her. This sense of contained beauty has long marked the female figures present in Malick's work, from Brooke Adams' Abby in Days of Heaven to the fleeting, memorial glances of Private Bell's sweetheart-back-home (Miranda Otto) in The Thin Red Line to Q'orianka Kilcher's Pocahontas. Marina is different insofar as her sexuality is given visible, tangible life on screen—expressed in vibrant visual analogues to the textual erotics of the Song of the Songs—but her voice remains nonetheless elusive, especially to Neil.

Top: The camera, taking on Pocahontas' point of view, moves through English gardens at the end of The New World. Above: Mont Saint-Michel in To the Wonder.

The use of voice-over narration in Malick's work provides delicate windows into his characters' subjective perception of the world around them. The multitude of voices in later films like The Thin Red Line and The New World has made for a more collective sense of experience, voices running together like paint on a canvas. In To the Wonder, he's up to something rather different. By including three different languages in voice-over narration (English, French, and Spanish), Malick ensures that the voices of these individual speakers will remain distinct. This also highlights the gap between the relatively few words spoken in dialogue on screen (almost invariably in English, not particularly expressive) and the vivid interior voices of these characters. The spiritual-philosophical musings posited by Marina in French voice-over stand in decided contrast to the English she speaks to Neil and others in his Oklahoma town. By the dual constraints of language and social performance, Marina's internal voice is enclosed within, sealed up like the exquisite hortus conclusus glimpsed with awe in the film's early moments.

The Spanish-speaking Father Quintana likewise expresses himself differently when speaking in English to the members of his parish (whether in conversation or delivering a sermon during mass), than in his private, deeply uncertain thoughts on God, faith, and love. In this sense of secret interiority that Father Quintana shares with Marina, the troubled priest is implicitly feminized, joined metaphorically to the female lover—much as the figure of the woman in the Song of Songs has long been interpreted by theologians to represent the Church, the allegorical bride of Christ. That, for Malick, this clerical figure sings a song of doubt, of love muddled or lost, perhaps never to be regained, presents an unsettling challenge to the traditional ecclesiological conception of the Song of Songs, the dogmatic interpretation that has allowed this ancient love poem to fit ostensibly within the Christian canon. In connecting ecclesia, the Church, to the hortus conclusus and female lover in the Song of Songs, theologians following Gregory and the Venerable Bede have emphasized the protective nature of the Church in preserving the Christian faithful in this life so as to be safely delivered, through salvation, to Christ in the next. For Malick's small-town priest, the Church, which he serves to represent, may instead be viewed as an impediment to sustained faith. Bernard of Clairvaux's aforementioned, alternate reading of the allegorical relationship in the Song of Songs, as instead between God and the soul, seems to be more palatable for Malick the theologian. Indeed, the greater sense of individual intimacy accommodated by this reading of the Song of Songs seems to be just the kind of spiritual relationship that Malick has carved out for his characters, from at least Jim Caviezel's Private Witt in The Thin Red Line on and especially in his two most recent films. The prayers whispered in voice-over in The Tree of Life and the spiritually turbulent ruminations on the soundtrack of To the Wonder sound like nothing so much as confessions, in the gestational, distinctly Augustinian sense of the term. “Restless is our heart until it rests in you,” wrote Augustine in his Confessions—another line that would hardly seem incongruous in a Malick film.

Yet, as in the Song of Songs, the true beauty of the lyricism in To the Wonder is in the exchange of verses between lovers, the poetic interdependence between speakers, upping the erotic/spiritual ante. After all, whether Malick is specifically considering love between humans or between God and man, or both at once, the subject and object of that love are both required to sustain its reciprocation. Again, presence, or at least the subscribed-to idea of presence, is necessary. It is no coincidence that, in her brief appearance, McAdams' Jane quotes from another biblical text, Paul's Letter to the Romans: “all things work together for good” (8:28). It's no doubt a comforting thought in dark times, as Jane explains to Neil, but it also speaks to the finally mysterious, theologically imbued lyricism of To the Wonder, a song without a wasted or misplaced note.

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Great references, and I love the images.
This is a wonderful exegesis of To the Wonder, the first Malick that I really didn’t know what to think of. As someone who cannot escape theology, even as I no longer have faith, this is absolutely fascinating to me and will surely have me returning to the film far sooner than I was planning on.
Your gift for plumbing the depths of Malick’s art is breathtaking.
Thanks for adding to the much smaller chorus of reactions to late Malick, cognizant of all the theology that has confronted a larger collective of sneering. The correlation to Song of Solomon is a surprising, if not indulgently off-center, twist in your analysis. http://mubi.com/films/the-tree-of-life/reviews/23603
Amazing. Thank you.
Coherent and Brilliant. An important little piece of writing related to Malick. Your point about the necessity of such theological explorations to the understanding of Malick’s work was massive, and your subsequent theological explorations themselves were penetrating and insightful. Enjoyed it very much.
Brilliant piece of writing. Paul Schrader should perhaps be added to the list of western filmmakers (though perhaps not ‘canonical’) who has dealt seriously in pretty much all his movies with theological issues. (Even – or perhaps especially – American Gigolo.) More anecdotally, I once interviewed Martin Sheen over dinner in Paris (I’m a film journalist) and the setting reminded him that when he had his spiritual crisis, during and after his Apocalypse Now heart attack, he visited Malick in Paris and it was theological discussions with him that rekindled Sheen’s Catholic faith.

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