Film: Song of Faith and Devotion

How does love curdle into contempt? It doesn’t happen overnight, but all of a sudden you find yourself wondering, how could such a pure emotion, one you’re certain is strong enough to overcome any obstacle, mutate into something so wretched?

I’m sorry, argues Terrence Malick in his ravishing romance To the Wonder, but “we just drifted apart” is just not good enough. More so than in any other of his previous efforts, he seeks answers to matters concerning that most mysterious organ: the human heart. Does he go about it in the usual fashion, letting a conventional narrative and story-telegraphing dialogue do the heavy lifting? Of course not. Malick continues to dwell on those elliptical rhythms that have polarized audiences ever since he bounced back from a 20-year hiatus with The Thin Red Line in 1998.

To the Wonder begins, not with the pristine images we’ve come to expect from the Oscar-nominated auteur, but with raw video footage of a train voyage. The European countryside rushes by, and then we realize we’re looking at a couple’s home video. It’s obvious that quiet, camera-shy Neil (Ben Affleck), a Bartlesville, Oklahoma native, is smitten with Marina (Olga Kurylenko), the Ukrainian woman he met in Paris during his travels abroad. Off they go, sightseeing in Mont Saint-Michel, a small tidal island in Normandy, off the northwestern coast of France, that’s also known as “the Wonder of the West.” They traipse up the stairs of the abbey, which dates back to the 11th Century, and the sequence plays like an extended version of that scene in The Tree of Life where Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain frolic on the grass. The camera circles around the lovers so closely that it almost feels as if it were caressing them. Coursing just beneath surface, though, is an all-encompassing melancholy that takes over as the film progresses.

Neil, a taciturn, hulking figure, needs to return to the States to continue his work as an environmental inspector, and he wants Marina and her 10-year-old daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) to go with him. Marina’s ambivalent. After all, she’s gone down this road before, and it didn’t turn out so well. But this budding relationship feels so right. How could she possibly say no? Culture shock hits mother and daughter like a slap to the face. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki shoots the region’s gas stations and fast food joints as desolate alien landscapes, and they accentuate these immigrants’ isolation. Tatiana marvels at the cleanliness of the local supermarket, but the language barrier poses a problem at school. Marina feels that Neil is pulling away, and despair sets in. We become so attuned to the ebb and flow of Marina and Neil’s relationship – the furtive glances, the fights followed by a reconciliation – that we intuit each development in a way that feels organic. The near absence of dialogue works in the movie’s favor, and Malick uses the actors’ contrasting body language to illuminating effect.

Less effective is how Malick uses Father Quintana, the Spanish priest who’s undergoing a crisis of faith. He goes through the motions of giving mass and helping the community’s downtrodden. But the fervor that made him take the vows is gone. Where did it go, and how can he restore the bond he once had with the Almighty? The role, nicely underplayed by Javier Bardem, holds tons of potential, but Malick doesn’t quite manage to interweave Quintana’s struggles with the other characters’ heartache. It’s a story strand that features some affecting moments, but it touches on spiritual matters the filmmaker charted much more successfully in The Tree of Life. Part of me also wishes Malick had more fully developed the character of Jane (Rachel McAdams), a figure from Neil’s past with whom he briefly reconnects at a certain point in the film. In her limited screen time, though, McAdams etches an engrossing portrait of a strong, enterprising woman who brings her own baggage to the table.

The cycle of codependency at To the Wonder‘s core, however, more than compensates for these missteps. Malick captures Neil and Marina’s pas de deux with a choreographer’s eye and, as expected, a knack for finding a piece of classical music that will bring out the best in a specific scene. If The New World, with which this new film shares quite a bit of DNA, was his 17th Century poem, and The Tree of Life his cosmic symphony, To the Wonder is his ballet. If Affleck occasionally comes across as stiff, that’s because Malick often uses him as a counterpoint for his muses to shine. (That doesn’t mean the director completely cuts him out of the film’s more intimate moments. In a particular sex scene, he eroticizes him every bit as much as Kurylenko, who is terrific here.) Like Neil, the notoriously reclusive Malick reportedly lived in Europe for some time, and judging by the character’s brooding temperament, it wouldn’t be a stretch to posit that, to some extent, he’s a stand-in for the filmmaker.

What ultimately makes To the Wonder sing to me is Malick’s fearlessness, the trust he puts in viewers to plumb the depths of Neil and Marina’s sorrow. If the film lacks the catharsis that is emblematic of his best work, it seems to be a deliberate decision, as he tackles deeply personal territory for which he doesn’t have any clear answers. He has made an imperfect marvel, one that’s just as committed to dramatizing his characters’ spiritual pirouettes as much as exploring their more earthly concerns.

Relationship troubles also seems to occupy former corporate engineer/do-gooder Tony Stark at the outset of Iron Man 3. Christmas is fast approaching, and he hasn’t been able to get over the traumatic near-death experience he had at the end of The Avengers. Intense nightmares wake him up at night, to the point that he’s just stopped sleeping. And he’s kept all this bottled inside, unwilling to share his inner turmoil with main squeeze Pepper Potts. Sounds awfully serious, no?

When viewed through the sardonic lens of Shane Black, who takes over directing duties from Iron Man and Iron Man 2 helmer/costar Jon Favreau, the problems of this Marvel superhero, played once again by Robert Downey, Jr., are reduced to a narrative outline that the filmmaker uses to throw one-liners and non-sequiturs at the audience. True, an Iron Man movie wouldn’t be complete without a dash of Stark’s cynicism, but Favreau knew that beneath Stark’s disaffected façade is a man with conviction, a quality that, unfortunately, is noticeably missing from this latest installment of the comic book franchise.

This time around, Stark not only has to grapple with the certainty that he’s suffering from post traumatic stress disorder that surfaces in crippling anxiety attacks, but with the fact that an Asian foe who calls himself the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) is targeting his loved ones, including Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, reprising her role). Again, this is heady subject matter that cries for a little more gravity than Black, who directed the sensational 2005 action caper Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, also starring Downey, Jr., is willing to provide. The film lurches from scene to scene with a devil-may-care that made me lose sympathy for the life-and-death scenario his characters’ face.

Black saves most of the action – including a sensational mid-air rescue – for the film’s final third, but then he piles on the haphazardly staged mayhem so heavily that Iron Man 3 topples from under its weight. It’s a shame, because Black has cast the film with a solid, and reliably funny, supporting cast that, besides Kingsley, includes Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall and charismaticTV veteran James Badge Dale (HBO’s The Pacific). The lazy plotting and cooler-than-thou posturing, however, ultimately cause Iron Man 3 to be far less than the sum of its parts.

Following stellar box office overseas, Iron Man 3 arrives in the States on Friday. That same day, Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder opens at the Miami Beach Cinematheque (mbcinema.com) and O Cinema (o-cinema.org). It’s also scheduled to play at the Bill Cosford Cinema (cosfordcinema.com) next weekend.

About Ruben Rosario

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