Perhaps few films have divided critics more at this year's Toronto than Terence Malick's To the Wonder. While few would deny its surpassing visual beauty, some viewers are put off by the film's vaunting religiosity, paucity of story, virtual absence of dialogue. Over dinner last night, one critic friend called it "self-parody."
Me, I find Wonder a thing of wonder. The ravishing images married to a glorious score -- think Wagner's "Parsifal" -- keep you in a suspended swoon. And the film manages the paradoxical feat of naked intimacy, as if you were lolling about in Malick's pysche, while revealing scant details about the notoriously private filmmaker.
Such story as there is basically involves a memory/meditation about a man (Ben Affleck) who falls in love with a Parisian (Olga Kurylenko) and brings her back to the States to his home somewhere in Malick-land -- i.e. windswept plains always viewed at dusk or early dawn, dotted with sterile suburban houses and peopled with folks wandering about in a trance. The man reconnects with a childhood friend (gorgeous Rachel MacAdam), his transplanted wife starts an affair, the marriage unravels. Throughout, a priest (Javier Bardem) who has lost his calling weaves his own prayerful musings among Kurylenko's voiceovers. The closing images offer little closure, only fodder for speculation.
Film opens with Kurylenko's murmured French for "I'd never hoped to love like this again," set against the couple wandering the vast flats of a literal world wonder, the monastery Mont St. Michel in Brittany. Shot in midwinter and of course at some mystical violet hour, the place resembles Malick's depiction of heaven at the end of The Tree of Life. It's as if this astonishing filmmaker had a direct pipeline to divinity and feels as comfy in apocalyptic milieux as in someone's living room (a trait that maddens some viewers). "I want only to go a little of our way together," Kurylenko says. And, "If you love me I need nothing else."
In Wonder Malick unabashedly sets the poverty of time-bound human love against God's eternal love, a theme underscored by Bardem's longing to reconnect with his faith. Not unlike Malick, the priest is also dialoguing with God: "How long will you hide Yourself?"
Granted, maybe Affleck and especially Kurylenko go overboard with the frolicking and gamboling in Malick's idiosyncratic take on lovers. But you don't need religion to savor this hymn about profane and sacred love -- and about light, maybe the film's central subject. The wind bending grasses, a woman's hair, sun through trees, bison -- even a humble insect on a windowpane -- are all conveyed by Malick's genius cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki as spirit made manifest. (Intriguing factoid: Lubezki is Jewish.) Malick offers a unique way of seeing the world, a world filtered through the lens of a cinematic visionary.
In the sprocket opera that is TIFF you can pivot on a dime and find yourself in the totally unrelated culture of Israeli counter terrorism. The Gatekeepers, a documentary by Dror Moreh, penetrates the fortress of the Shin Bet, Israel's domestic security agency, to interview former agents about their undercover operations against Palestinian militants. That the filmmaker snagged the interviews is an amazing coup. When I asked Dror Moreh at the Sony Pictures Classics dinner how he got his subjects to talk on camera, he replied, "I just asked" (and acknowledged, laughing, that it took a bit of massaging to lay the groundwork).
In Gatekeeprs (which has also made the prestigious lineup of The New York Film Festival) Moreh intermingles talking heads with news footage, history, and diagrams of bombing operations, while marking off sections with title cards, such as "Forget About Morality" and "One Man's Terrorist is Another Man's Freedom Fighter." The agents of the well-oiled machine of Shin Bet come off as iron men but also a little remorseful, and always charismatic. They offer an inside look at recruiting an agent, which involves "getting him to betray his own." Confess they prefer a "tidy" operation without collateral damage -- "hard to avoid with a one ton bomb." In the end, one gatekeeper calls the army "a brutal occupational force" and comes down on the side of talking with the enemy. "When you retire," says another with a grim smile, "you become a bit of a leftist." This is an essential film for anyone who cares to know what's going on in the world.