To the Wonder (Malick, 2012) can be seen as a sequel in many ways to The Tree of Life. Both films are shot in the same visual style; both are autobiographical, with The Tree of Life reflecting on Malick’s childhood and To the Wonder exploring the relationships Malick had in early adulthood; and both films deal with theological issues and the search for meaning in life. In fact, both films have a scene in a church where the sermon is taken directly from 19th Century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.
To the Wonder is a movie about love. It deals with all types of love – friendship, romance, marriage, family, charity, and love of God. It is no accident that there are three sex scenes in the film, covering all varieties of erotic love. One scene is pre-marital, one is marital, and one is adulterous. Likewise, what’s the point of giving a main character a daughter if not to introduce the idea of parental love? Malick is systematically depicting all forms of love and revealing them all to be temporary and unsustainable apart from God.
The film is a meditation on “the ladder of love”, a medieval Christian metaphor for the process of sanctification by which we ascend towards God in Christ-likeness by learning to love as Christ loved – or, as Malick puts it, “climbing to the wonder” where “the love that loves us” is found.
The metaphor of a ladder was originally used in the Symposium in which Plato describes a gradual ascent from erotic love towards knowledge of the divine, an idea that greatly influenced Christian neo-Platonists like Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius. In the medieval era, the Platonic image was combined with the Eastern Orthodox idea of the “ladder of divine ascent” depicted in the writings of 6th Century monastic author John Climacus. Climacus described the process of sanctification as ascending a ladder towards God as we grow in Christ-likeness. In the 12 Century, French mystic Bernard of Clairvaux combined Climacus’s ladder of divine ascent with the Platonic ladder of love to produce the image of sanctification as the process of learning to love God properly. The metaphor of a ladder was important to Kierkegaard, too. He drew from this tradition for his central concept of the “stages on life’s way”, even adopting the pseudonym Johannes Climacus for his most important philosophical works.
So Malick is ruminating on the Christian ascent “to the wonder” of love. But Malick’s symbol for the wonder is the abbey at Mont-Saint-Michel, a strip of land that becomes an island at high tide. Just as the wonder is an island that is often inaccessible to those of us who dwell on earth, so the path to the eternal is often obscured by the waters of time and change – Heraclitus’s river of becoming.
For Malick, as for Kierkegaard, human love doesn’t last. Lust doesn’t last, but neither does true spiritual love – even the priest in To the Wonder struggles with spiritual dryness. We are commanded to love, notes the priest in his sermon, quoting Kierkegaard’s Works of Love, and so love must be a choice. But love is an infinite commitment. And, as infinite, it can never be completed in time. The choice must be constantly made anew in each moment. Thus we inevitably fail. And yet love never fails us. It is “love that loves us”. We are caught up in it beyond our control and beyond our deserving. Love is always ready to take us back if we choose again.
Interestingly, this line of thought illuminates the need to constantly repeat the Eucharist. I don’t think Kierkegaard talks about the Eucharist in these terms, but repetition is a key term of his. Malick, however, hints at it in his use of St. Patrick’s Breastplate at the Eucharistic climax of To the Wonder, when the priest learns to see the body of Christ in his parishioners. For Kierkegaard, love only escapes despair if the other is loved in God as a reflection of God loving through us, consciously chosen. In other words, love only works if the lovers are journeying together to the wonder. But even then it must be infinitely chosen at every moment and constantly renewed, hence the necessary repetition of the Eucharist. Christ’s work of love is finished, but we have to continually reconnect ourselves to it. Our climb to the Wonder of God’s love is never finished.