The Cinema of Terrence Malick: Capturing Augustinian Beauty
Elisha Bonnette | On Jul 06, 2015
In Spring 2015, Joshua Sikora led a Media Studies class examining the celebrated work of Terrence Malick, the elusive auteur behind films like Badlands, The Thin Red Line, and The Tree of Life. This article, written by Cinema & New Media Arts sophomore Elisha Bonnette, finds fascinating similarities between Malick’s latest film, To the Wonder, and The Confessions of St. Augustine. We also invite you to check out other articles from the class as they’re posted throughout the summer.
One of the most common descriptions applied to Terrence Malick’s films is that they are beautiful, and with good reason. His strict adherence to a set of dogma-inspired rules for cinematography shines through in his later films, while his attention to nature lays a peaceful groundwork for all of his films. However, over the course of his films, his focus can be seen to transition from aesthetic beauty to what I can only think to call true beauty. This is most evident in his most recent film, To the Wonder. In To the Wonder, Terrence Malick uses his mastery of aesthetic beauty to tell a story which ultimately points to true beauty.
On the surface, the story Malick tells in To the Wonder is by far his most cryptic. A couple struggles with their infidelity, while everyone else in their lives, including the woman’s daughter, seems to come and go at random, leaving virtually no impact on the main characters. Meanwhile, a priest struggles with his faith, frightened by his inability to see God’s work around him. That’s pretty much the entire narrative of the film. A couple cheats and breaks up, and a priest remains uncertain of why he can’t see God. There really isn’t a lot that is presented, because, in a sense, the real story itself is not presented; it lies in how the actions are presented.
To the Wonder’s story is not simply about people, it is about the innate beauty of the world. However, it is difficult to come to this conclusion without closely analyzing the film. Once you take a closer look, though, the structure of the film’s presentation closely resembles elements of Saint Augustine’s Confessions. Both tell tales of sinful indulgence and their repercussions and, more importantly, both take the view that everything that God has created is innately beautiful. This is one of the most important concepts that Augustine left with his legacy. According to him, sin has no substance, because all substance has been formed by God, who has only made good things. Yet, it is undeniable that sin exists, despite having no substance, because its repercussions are visible in day to day life. The only reasonable explanation that Augustine finds is that sin is a perverted state of being: a beautiful thing twisted for unrighteous means. By this line of reasoning, even evil things used to terrible effect remain beautiful, though their effects are devastating.
To the Wonder attempts to portray this by using a different approach than most movies would. It starts off showing fairly typical romantic scenes between the male and female leads, complete with the extraordinary visual style for which Terrence Malick has become known. However, once the couple moves to America, things get a bit weirder. The story starts alternating between the couple and the priest, who spends most of his time ministering to the poor and depraved, wandering through neighborhoods of broken down houses and speaking to addicts and prisoners. Yet, despite the detestable connotation of the situations he puts himself in, they are beautiful. The male lead has a job testing water which has been poisoned, further harming people in the area, and it too is beautiful. Even after the couple is apart because of a visa problem and the man cheats by sleeping with an old love interest of his, that too is shown beautifully.
On an initial viewing, this is a very disconcerting pattern, and it may even seem to be glorifying activities such as infidelity, but because the film seems to be subjectively showing everything as beautiful, it ends up having the effect of a distant, objective viewpoint. The movie doesn’t tell the viewer that what the characters are doing is wrong, at least not directly. Instead of visually inspiring a particular emotion or mood, it allows the viewer to track the actions and consequences of each individual character to come to the conclusion of what is good and what is bad. The indiscriminate view that the movie takes does a good job conveying scope. Even though there is clearly sin and corruption in the world, it fails to really make an impact on God’s beautiful creation.
This makes the priest’s role in the narrative subtext absolutely vital, because he is the only character who verbally acknowledges the movie’s thematic core. His struggles highlight that his problems are both the same and very different than the couple’s problems. While he doesn’t deal with infidelity, the root of all of his worrying is the same root as the couple’s issues. He can’t see God’s beauty around him. However, unlike the couple, he knows it surrounds him. He knows that it is there, and he is desperately seeking it, hoping for a glimpse, but it is his own lack of faith that holds him back. Now, that is not to say that he doesn’t have faith. In fact, his faith is quite impressive, and leads him into situations that most people would never dream of being in. Yet, for every junkie or prisoner he ministers to, there is a home which he was too frightened of to enter. While the couple is oblivious to the beauty, the priest knows it is there, and seeks it wholeheartedly. At the end of the movie, it is unclear whether he has finally seen God’s presence, or whether he is merely trying to comfort himself with a prayer of assurance, but it contrasts with the omnipresence the viewer is given. The audience, unlike the characters, has the benefit of seeing the world through the lens of a camera, where the aesthetic beauty radiating from even the worst of areas gives the message that even the most corrupt elements of the world remain beautiful in substance.
Despite To the Wonder essentially being a movie about beauty, it pulls just as much, though less directly, from other Augustinian influences. Augustine’s Confessions is best known for its portrayal of sin and beauty, but it moves on from there. After analyzing his memories of his own life, Augustine takes a weird turn and begins analyzing the nature of memory itself. Aside from the surface level similarity that both Confessions and To the Wonder are at least partially autobiographical, this actually fits quite interestingly with Malick’s well-known attempts to evoke a dreamlike state with his films. Augustine theorizes that there are two surface level elements that make up what we think of as memory: an image and an emotion. Looking back hundreds of years later, these two elements apply just as well to film. After all, what is a storyboard, but a series of images with accompanying descriptions of what is said and the emotion it should convey? Indeed, Malick’s approach to cinema isn’t aiming to tell a story, but rather to create a lasting memory for the viewer.
This method of attempted memory-making actually clears up quite a bit of the strange dream-like qualities of Malick’s films, and the seemingly downward progression in scale that they take. As his movies become less incredible, from the epic scale of war in The Thin Red Line and wide-eyed discovery in The New World to the suburban homesteads of The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, they also become far more relatable. The tragic ending of The Thin Red Line is certainly impactful, but it doesn’t hit anywhere near as close to home as the tensions between a father and son in The Tree of Life. This trend explains why To the Wonder is Terrence Malick’s least commercially successful movie to date. A lot of viewers shunned the movie, claiming it was dull, hollow, and ultimately leaves very little impact, but, while some good points have been posed as to why, that would seem to be missing the point. To the Wonder was not made to awe and to captivate audiences during its runtime, it was made to stick with them after they walk out of the theater. Rather than being an exciting film, it attempts to form itself into a memory that will hopefully influence and improve the viewers’ knowledge of the matters with which it grapples.
Whether intentional or not, Terrence Malick’s film To the Wonder mirrors Saint Augustine’s Confessions in a number of ways. It uses a medium which did not exist in Augustine’s time to try to convey many of the same ideas, but instead of defining what a memory is, the film acts as a sum of the parts of a memory to become a reenactment of a higher truth. This “reenactment” of sorts is then set in a relatable setting, attempting to use the seemingly mundane set pieces to make the memory it forms to be as lifelike as possible. All of this acts to the benefit of the films simple message. Everything and everyone is made by God, and everything God makes is beautiful.
Come back next week for new student articles that explore more ways that Terrence Malick challenges his audience with his cinematic work.
Elisha Bonnette is a sophomore in the Cinema & New Media Arts program at HBU and a student in HBU’s Honors College.