“To the Wonder”: Looking for poetry in a Walmart parking lot

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To the Wonder” has its free Madison premiere on Saturday, July 13 at 7 p.m. at the Union South Marquee Theatre, 1308 W. Dayton St., as part of the UW-Cinematheque’s tribute to Roger Ebert. R, 1:52, three and a half stars out of four.

Can you find poetry in a Sonic drive-thru? In 2011″s “Tree of Life,” Terrence Malick presented a rapturous portrait of childhood lost, every image of a 1950s boyhood in Texas so beautiful that you hated to see them fade.

Malick now gives a contemporary love story the same treatment in “To the Wonder,” a love story again told in visual poetry and half-heard whispers. I loved “Tree of Life,” but this time around, I was a harder sell. Does this romance deserve this kind of epic treatment, I wondered, or are we in the hands of a filmmaker so used to reaching for beauty that he sometimes can’t touch the humanity that’s right in front of him?

Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) are new lovers in Paris, rapt with each other and with the idea of each other. We see them cavorting in the park with Marina’s daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) and visit a Benedictine abbey built on sand. The sight of the tide coming in and sluicing through the tiny ripples in the sand is one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen on a movie screen.

But rapture can’t last. Neil invites Marina to come live with him back in suburban Oklahoma, a land of Wal-Marts and homes that look they were just taken out of the box, the empty landscape divided into high-fenced yards. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki searches for poetry in this new world, just as Marina does, and they both occasionally find it. But Neil grows taciturn, perhaps worried that his twirling, girlish French lover doesn’t fit into the neatly-arranged boxes of his home life. Marina grows restless, passions cool, and Marina eventually takes her daughter back to France.

Back home, Neil connects with an old flame, Jane (Rachel McAdams), a rancher who seems to fit in perfectly in Neil’s life. But then Marina returns, seeking another chance, and a classic, tragic love triangle is played out against the empty, pitiless vista of an Oklahoma sky.

Faith has been a powerful theme running through Malick’s films, and here it takes the form of a Spanish priest (Javier Bardem), an expatriate like Marina, who tends his diminishing flock and privately nurses doubts about his faith. Parallels are drawn, between the imperfect love we feel for others and the mysterious love we feel from God. Can we make a necessary leap of faith in both our carnal and spiritual lives?

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I will confess that I found myself watching “To The Wonder” on two parallel tracks. One was a state of snarky cynicism, that Malick’s attempts to take an ordinary relationship and inflate it to awe-inspiring heights was pretentious and almost laughable. As I said on Twitter, the one thing I learned from the film is that puddle-splashing and pasture-twirling are not a solid foundation on which to build a relationship.

But on the other track, I was buying in. The film’s flowing imagery and minimal dialogue induce a kind of meditative state, much like in “Tree of Life,” and when those images rhyme with the emotions beneath them, it was quite powerful. The shot of the doubting priest hiding in his house, as an impoverished parishioner pounds on his frosted-glass door, was a haunting image of shame, as unforgettable in its own way as those tide pools in France. So I found my higher and lower selves having different, simultaneous reactions to the film — and I couldn’t tell you for sure which was my higher self and which was the lower.

In the end, transcendence won out. “To the Wonder” is an imperfect film that perhaps reaches too high and too far, but I admire the effort, and am grateful for those moments when Malick does connect, and the film suddenly becomes glorious.