The Unbearable Ambivalence of Film: With Consideration of Terrence Malick's To the Wonder

Mark Bowald
Tuesday, January 30th 2024
A vintage movie film projector.
Jan/Feb 2024

Classic Protestants are intrinsically ambivalent about human nature and thus human culture. On one side, we’re haunted by historical shadows. We’re disturbed by the specter of Constantinianism, since both Scripture and history bear witness to the pitfalls of wedding faith with political culture; we’re sensitive to the perennial temptation of elevating the works of our own hands into idols, a sensitivity learned in the Reformation; and we fully embrace our Augustinian theological heritage in its frank acknowledgment of original sin and total depravity.

On the other, brighter side of our Protestant ambivalence toward human culture stands our commitment to the cultural mandate as foundational to original human nature and purpose as created in the image of God, which he pronounced “very good” (Gen. 1:31). Even as sinners, we continue to reflect our Creator’s image and are still called to exercise our mandate to fill and subdue the earth. Ultimately, we believe that the heights of God’s redemption of humanity in Christ reach higher than the depths to which our depravity descends.

We have every reason, and endless evidence, that as a species we will always find ways, consciously or otherwise, to twist our cultural calling to unholy ends. Likewise, we have every reason and evidence to believe that our holy God in Christ will accomplish a far greater good despite—and even through—the works of our sinful hands. This ambivalence—this wrestling between Christ and culture—is in our age best represented in the advent of what is likely the most powerful cultural form in human history: film. Filmmaking possesses an unparalleled power and scope in human cultural expression. Filmmakers draw from and assimilate with ease every other form of human creative and expressive culture: storytelling, music, architecture, photography, painting, and sculpting. The legions employed in the production of films extend across nearly every imaginable area of human life, from electricians to hair and makeup artists, accountants, lawyers, drivers, costumers, “Craft Service” personnel (embracing everything from food preparation to cleaning). Films literally project worlds, worlds that present themselves to us as real and, perhaps even more poignantly, as possible.

In the second half of this essay, I focus mainly on one remarkable film—Terence Malick’s To the Wonder (2013)—for illustration and to motivate discussion of these themes. But in this first half of the essay, it’s important to explore just how thoroughly film as a cultural form has saturated our media landscape. In its broadest conception, it now encompasses a dizzying array of long- and short-form video and other similar content. This explosion of moving pictures paired with sound into every aspect of everyday life and technological media has occurred in the span of one generation—roughly the last thirty years. In that time, film has transitioned away from being a particular art form with clear boundaries and fairly strict technical and financial limitations on its producers and consumers.

The film The Blair Witch Project, made in 1999, stands as an important sign of the rapid shift to affordability and availability of the technology to produce film. Production costs of that film were $60,000. (To date it has earned something close to 250 million dollars). In the twenty-five years since then, the technology to shoot in industry minimum 4K and lighting and sound recording equipment have become easily affordable. Perhaps more startling is the fact that people have access to any of the professional level post-production tools and technology simply with an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription that presently costs only $54.99 a month. There are myriad apps and free open software available even more cheaply. Film today retains almost none of its former barriers to its producers and requires no special knowledge, literacy, or means for its consumers to access and digest on their smartphones. Film is now readily made, readily distributed, and readily viewed.

Attempting to make sense of the cultural impact of film amid such dramatic changes is a bit like being caught in a small rowboat in a local river during a historic flash flood. How do we navigate what we thought was familiar territory during an unprecedented situation? It feels less a time for leisurely contemplation in front of a fire with a pipe and good brandy than just holding on for dear life. Perhaps the best way to make sense of filmmaking’s impact, then, is to compare it to another revolutionary cultural form on which we’ve gained slightly more perspective: print.

The Advent and Cultural Power of the Printing Press

Western history nominates Johannes Gutenberg as the inventor of the printing press in the early fifteenth century. Although there is evidence of similar technology being employed centuries earlier in Korea and China, we need not dawdle over the details of who invented what first. The point here is that the catalyst for the history of print as an indisputably world-changing cultural form is the possibility of its mass production and distribution by means of the printing press.

This technology emerged and spread in Europe at a time that those of us who are sympathetic to Protestantism consider highly providential. For Christians, the services the printing press rendered to the religious revolutions of Martin Luther, John Calvin, Thomas Cranmer, Jan Hus—as those uniquely committed and invested in the authority and clarity of Holy Scripture and to its availability to every Christian—cast the newly powerful cultural form of print in the most gracious of rose-tinted light. Yet, as will later be the case with film, deep ambivalence remains. The power of the printing press as a tool of culture cannot be simply or solely connected to the goodness and love of the Trinity. It is also connected to, and complicated by, the nature of the human beings who wield it.

To be clear, the measure of the impact of the printing press in the early modern era had little to do with the existence of books as such. Books had existed in various forms for hundreds or even thousands of years prior to the invention of the printing press. The sweeping expansion of the influence of print culture was then and continues to be measured by one metric: accessibility. As with film, this accessibility can be mapped across two dimensions: production and consumption; and again, some of the most revolutionary change in this cultural form came in the span of a single generation.

As a seminary student in Grand Rapids in the 1990s, I spent inexcusable amounts of time and money in local theological bookstores. It was a golden era to build a library. There were so many new and used theology books available that some people rented high-capacity travel vans or small busses to coordinate group visits, making the rounds among all the stores in the area in one fell swoop. Foremost among these was the old Eerdmans bookstore, run by the venerable Allen Sundsmo, for whom managing a bookstore meant keeping abreast of new developments in publishing and serving clients what he deemed suitable to each one’s taste—a kind of theology sommelier.

A new kind of publisher arrived in those years, however, in the person of Jon Stock, whom I met when he visited and delivered books for sale to Eerdmans in those days. He, along with his partner John Wipf, had just fostered a revolutionary new publishing house (Wipf & Stock), at the center of which was a new printing technology called “print-on-demand.” They began obtaining the rights to out-of-print theology titles, digitizing them, and making available low-cost, one-off physical copies far more quickly—and with far less financial investment—than required by traditional bulk printing methods.

Fast-forward to the present where not only print-on-demand but e-books and self-publishing have virtually removed all traditional barriers for both the production and the consumption of books and other textual media. The two remaining barriers to the production of books in our day are whether an author is willing to commit the time and energy to write one, and whether that author is willing to risk the personal exposure of writing to the masses.

The Cultural Catalyst of the Internet

Following fast on the heels of these recent revolutions in print, the production and consumption innovations that underwrite the broad accessibility of film as a cultural form have appeared in the universal adoption of a wonderful and terrible trinity of technological synergy: cable television, the internet, and the smartphone. Nowadays we’re only beginning to realize the power of the moving image shared through any and all means. Twenty-four-hour news, streaming shows and movies, Tik Tok, YouTube, front door surveillance cameras. To all of which we now must add the emergence of A.I., “deep fakes” and such that further complicate the potential power and scope of filmic media. Power for what? The good? Or otherwise? Anyone paying attention will concede the negative balance on film’s cultural ledger. “What the world is to-day,” Mark Twain once wrote, “good and bad, it owes to Gutenberg.” Will we say the same one day about film?

This brings us to one more remarkable factor in film’s tremendous growth as a cultural force, which I’ll call the “literacy threshold.” Robert Darnton, reflecting on the impact of “forbidden” political texts in the emergence of the French Revolution, observed:

The making of meaning occurs at the street level as well as in books. The shaping of public opinion takes place in markets and taverns as well as in sociétés de pensée [societies of thought]. To understand how publics make sense of events, one must extend the inquiry beyond the works of philosophers and into the communication networks of everyday life.

Writing in 1995 before the technological and cultural revolution we’re discussing here came into its own, Darnton was still thinking primarily of the cultural form of printed books. Back then, cell phones were only phones. The internet was populated mostly by text, with less than 15 percent of the population of the United States having access. Books have always required a lengthy and difficult process by which a person comes to possess literacy—the capacity to read and understand. Consider the effort of years of learning and practice necessary to acquire even basic competency. It’s hard to overstate how much stronger Darnton’s network effect shaping public opinion is today than during the French Revolution (or even the 1990s). The literacy required to “read” film is a fraction of that required for texts. Perhaps it requires a cursory facility with speaking a language, but even this low bar is lowered further by the universality of the tools of art used in filmmaking. My Korean language literacy is nonexistent, but I am still able to enjoy Korean film, following the story and being moved by the artistry. We could argue about what’s required for meeting the most basic “literacy threshold” for reading printed material, but the threshold for filmic material nearly coincides with having functioning eyes.

Even more than with modern print media, then, public opinion has become the only remaining barrier for consumption. And this raises once again the ambivalence of human nature and cultural accomplishments. Not everyone with time and energy has something worthwhile to say, nor is the court of public opinion populated primarily by good, kind, or gracious jurors. To this point, I’ve mostly allowed film to languish on the darker half of human cultural ambivalence. We’re right to harbor deep concerns over the power and scope of film, residing as it does in unclean hands. Yet film’s power also represents the pinnacle of positive human cultural expression, with equal capacity to be used for the good—especially, perhaps, in hands that have been washed in the redemptive wake of Christ’s transforming work. Amid such ambivalence, film can be both tragic and beautiful, a powerful pairing of depth and height brilliantly captured in the work of Terence Malick.

The Theological Paradox between God’s Love
and Human Ambivalence in To the Wonder*

*Caution: plot spoiler alert!

Equal parts auteur and recluse, Terence Malick is one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers. He is also one of the precious few explicitly exploring the dimensions of Christian faith with a positive voice and vision. Malick was raised Roman Catholic and reportedly is now Episcopalian. Regardless, his films—especially in recent years—clearly articulate Christian themes through the lens of a phenomenological style of filmmaking. Phenomenology, most closely associated with Martin Heidegger, is a school of philosophy that focuses on meaning as grasped through direct, conscious experience of the world around us. For Heidegger, words and speech are a “reduction,” a diminishment of human “Be-ing.” That’s because Be-ing presents itself most fully in the moment, providing its own inarticulate and incalculable categories for comprehension. Transposed into cinematic terms, the fullness of Be-ing is better captured in images than in words. Malick is peerless in executing this style. That he can rely so little on words and dialogue and still “tell” such powerful stories speaks uniquely to the power of the image in storytelling and confirms the foundational place of metanarratives for human sense making. (This also means we should take note as we watch: if and when Malick allows speech, he does so with the highest level of intentionality. When Malick’s characters speak, pay attention; when he injects the frame with off-screen narration, treat it as the voice of Malick himself.)

Malick marries this impressionistic style with a narrative format in what is perhaps his most singularly Christian film, 2013’s To the Wonder. Even quick shots of a Golden Corral Restaurant feel like landscape paintings. Malick shows us that the world is expansive and large, beautiful and bright and bold. Juxtaposed against the breathtaking beauty of creation, the characters in To the Wonder are each complex, conflicted, flawed, and inevitably selfish—or in Christian vernacular, sinful. This juxtaposition between sin and beauty is central in To the Wonder, ultimately serving as an object lesson pointing to the profound grace of the God who loves us without fail, despite us.

The primary character around which the narrative is woven is Neil, played by Ben Affleck. We meet him while he is traveling in Europe and falling in love with Marina, a French woman played by the effervescent Olga Kurylenko. Neil and Marina share moments of profound love portrayed in the most stunning settings: gardens, cathedrals, castles, old European streets, and endless beaches (in Malick’s films, we always see lots of water). Neil brings Marina and her daughter home to the United States to live in a suburb of Bartlesville, Oklahoma, which we might think mundane by contrast; but Malick presents it too as a painting in motion.

Against such a rich backdrop of being and time and beauty, the characters are in love. Yet from the very beginning, it’s a conflicted love. Neil and Marina each inevitably act in selfishness, even violence. Marina dances (literally and figuratively) around Neil, both seeking his attention but also seeking to manipulate him into something deeper to which he remains stubbornly resistant. Eventually, coinciding with the expiration of her visa, the film suggests that Neil has cheated on Marina with Jane, a friend from earlier in his life (played by Rachel McAdams). Reluctant and distant, Neil often broods—all while continuing to champion the cause of creation care and the poor who suffer from the callous actions of the rich and powerful. Yet, we also see him expressing tenderness, care, regret, and eventually—and most importantly for Malick—repentance.

Jane, Neil’s old flame, carries all sorts of her own complex baggage; their tryst proves empty and fleeting. Almost immediately after Neil’s affair with Jane ends, Marina returns to him and they’re married in a church. It’s here that we meet the fourth main character, Father Quintana, a priest portrayed with gravitas and genuineness by Javier Bardem. He arguably steals not only the scene (as they say) but also the film, both in his performance and in his role in the story.

Like the other characters, Quintana wanders through Malick’s troubled but fundamentally beautiful world, desperately trying to make sense of its paradoxes, searching for faith. In a voiceover prayer, he reveals his struggle to trust God: “Everywhere you are present, and still I can’t see you. . . . Why don’t I hold on to what I’ve found? . . . My heart is cold . . . hard.” In Malick’s filmography, priests are especially conflicted, broken. Despite his internal struggles, however, Quintana still shows faith both in his deeds and in his words. In one prophetic scene, he preaches with Neil and Marina present:

Man is in revolt against God . . . Hosea, in the breakdown of his marriage, in the spiritual infidelity of his people, in that broken marriage we see the pattern of our world . . . the man who makes a mistake can repent but the man who hesitates, who does nothing . . . with him [God] can do nothing.

On biblical cue, like the sudden and unannounced arrival of the serpent in Genesis 3, an Italian friend of Marina’s arrives and echoes that original Edenic temptation. She, like the serpent with Eve, tries to convince Marina to read the story of her life with Neil differently. She prompts her to “leave while you can”—to seek freedom from the bondage of her marriage covenant. Fast on the heels of this we witness more dramatic fighting as a culminating meltdown between Neil and Marina. The next few scenes show Malick’s most profound demonstration of the unbearable ambivalence of human nature. Marina first repents of her role in these conflicts with Neil. Echoing Romans 7, she confesses to God in voiceover,

I’ve hurt people . . . I know what I am. . . . My god what a cruel war. . . . I find two women inside of me . . . one full of love for you . . . the other pulls me down to earth.

Then, in the very next scene, Marina follows the neighborhood handyman to a hotel and breaks her marriage vows. She then confesses and asks Neil for forgiveness, which he initially resists but then gives. The damage, however, is done, and the truth of the ambivalence of human nature has now been shown clearly in all the characters human Be-ing.

Finally comes the film’s sweeping sixteen-minute conclusion. It is framed as a final prayer “to the wonder”: God. The sequence begins with Neil visiting first a divorce lawyer and then Father Quintana for spiritual guidance. These conversations are interspersed with a scene in which we see Neil trying yet failing to repair a broken clock—to fix time. The music swells, carrying us to the final resolution. Neil accompanies his priest as he visits the poor and ministers to drug abusers and the destitute in his parish. A voiceover prayer from Quintana begins:

Teach us where to seek you. . . .
Christ be with me . . .
Christ before me . . .
Christ behind me . . .
Christ in me . . .
Christ beneath me . . .
Christ above me. . .
Christ on my right . . .
Christ on my left . . .
Christ in the heart . . .
Thirsting . . .
We thirst . . .

Neil is here shown kneeling in front of Marina, repenting, asking for forgiveness, while Quintana’s prayer continues.

Flood our souls with your spirit and life . . .
So completely . . .
That our lives may only be a reflection of yours . . .
Shine through us . . .
Show us how to seek you . . .
We were made to see you . . .

We then see Neil and Marina at the airport, exchanging final goodbyes without bitterness. And finally, the last prayer is uttered that summarizes, closes, and encloses the film. This prayer is all they are able to say, all that needs to be said; and in it, Malick tells us something about all we can say. In Marina’s voice, the final prayer is offered: “Love that loves us . . . merci.”

Repentance as Conclusion

Against the backdrop of the shattering beauty of creation; in light of the ways we have sinned by what we have and have not done, both knowingly and otherwise; despite ourselves, the Wonder—God in Christ—is faithful to us and grants us unfathomable grace of which we are only ever partially aware. Malick shows us that we are creatures who should live in perennial confession and thankfulness.

The vision in Malick’s most overtly Christian film of a loving Creator God, a deeply compromised humanity, and the beauty and grace that persist in the world—very much despite us—is one that transcends denominations. It should resonate particularly loudly among those with reformational convictions. The characters in this film represent humanity in all the good we inevitably wreck and the havoc we cannot help but wreak. Nevertheless, they, like we, receive constant grace, making us able somehow through it all to begin to show faith ourselves.

We live in a time when the technology and art of film production and consumption is exponentially more powerful and more available than ever before. Our time offers the possibility of using this power for untold good or ill. Film confronts us with a cultural form whose ambivalence is as unbearable as that of human nature itself. As Christians, we aren’t above this ambivalence, but we’re uniquely suited to engage it, devoting our energy to understanding the unique peril and promise of filmmaking for our time.

There is a terrible beauty in our human creaturely ambivalence that is not meant for resolution in this age. It is inherent to our good yet fallen condition, to life and death. It is named in the gospel, in repentance and forgiveness; it is felt in the paradoxical relationship of doubt and faith; it is revealed in Scripture in the already and not yet of the kingdom of Christ, who is the incarnate fullness of both divine and human Be-ing yet no less powerful Word of truth and grace. As we wrestle with this newest and most powerful of cultural forms, film, we should give thanks, merci, to the Lord of creation and culture for the grace to continue hearing and telling his story and ours—even as we rightly pause to consider with care the ambivalence of the filmic witness we bear and the impact it makes.


  • On this history, see especially Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early-Modern Europe, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), as well as the fascinating and counterintuitive work of Robert Darnton, The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (New York: W. W. Norton, 1995).

  • From “The Work of Gutenberg,” a tribute published in the Hartford Daily Courant (June 27, 1900), 7.

  • See Rod Dreher’s review of Malick’s A Hidden Life,, and also his discussion of this film as an entry point to an online “diary” entry.

  • For an accessible introduction to phenomenology, which also happens to be written by a Catholic priest and theologian, see Robert Sokolowski, Introduction to Phenomenology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

  • The film even contains a phenomenological philosophy Easter egg at the 1:00:54 mark. In the scene, Neil is lying on a mattress on the floor reading the newly available translation of Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit (Being and Time).

  • Malick uses Marina’s daughter as a foil who occasionally observes that things just don’t seem right. At 0:08 already, she asks her mom why she’s unhappy. At 0:21:22, she insists “we need to leave . . . there’s something missing.”

  • 41:35, Marina’s voiceover: “You told me about her . . .”

  • 24:08.

  • 34:45.

  • 1:26:14.

  • 1:28:03.

  • Expressing “thank you” in French but also, I believe, evoking the English word mercy.

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Mark Bowald
Mark Bowald is professor of theological studies and director of master’s programs at Grace College and Theological Seminary. He serves as canon theologian and examining chaplain for the Anglican Diocese of the Great Lakes (ACNA) and is the former general editor of Christian Scholar’s Review. With industry experience in film and television, he writes and speaks on hermeneutics, theology, and culture.
Tuesday, January 30th 2024

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