Friday, June 10, 2016

Clergy in Crisis month: To the Wonder (2012)

Hosea doesn't usually get a lot of screen time. I've heard the Lord's Prayer in dozen of films; the Sermon on the Mount and the 23rd Psalm aren't too uncommon in scripts, either. But the Minor Prophets don't spend much time at the multiplex (with the possible exception of Jonah in Moby Dick and Master and Commander). Thinking about it, in real world pulpits you don't often hear sermons from Hosea either.

The Book of Hosea tells the unusual story of a prophet marrying a prostitute; their relationship represents God's relationship with his people. Father Quintana's (Javier Bardem) homily on the book of Hosea is at the heart of Terrence Malick's film, To The Wonder.

Malick has never been a populist, popcorn-selling machine as a filmmaker. His films usually avoid crisp narrative and instead favor lingering nature shots and philosophical pondering. And even with that, some critics referred to To The Wonder as perhaps his least accessible film. The plot of the film, such as it is, follows an American, Neil (Ben Affleck), in Paris, where he falls in love with a single mother, Marina (Olga Kurylenko). He asks her to return with him to Oklahoma.

In the States, Marina meets Father Quintana, the pastor the Catholic Church in Neil's hometown. Her first husband, the father of her child, abandoned her and she has married again, she says. The Church has told her that because of this, she's ineligible to participate in Communion. (This teaching seems to me contrary to what Paul wrote in I Corinthians 7:15, "But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so; the brother or sister is not bound in such circumstances".)

The film then follows a couple of different tracks that seem unrelated: the disintegrating relationship of Neil and Marina and Father Quintana's interior, spiritual struggles. Many audiences and critics are troubled by the seeming lack of continuity between the stories, but they are connected by the priest's sermon about Hosea. The literal struggles in a marriage (beware of bedroom scenes) are mirrored in the priest's spiritual struggles.

In a voiceover prayer, the Father says to his Father, "Everywhere you're present, but I can't see You. You're in me, around me, and I have no experience of You; not as I once did. My heart is cold, hard." Some in the congregation notice. One woman in the congregation tells the priest, "Father, I'm going to pray for you, so you will receive the gift of joy." A janitor in the church tells the priest he can tell he's lonely.

Yet the priest doesn't stop ministering. We see him preaching and giving sacraments. We see him at a wedding and talking with parishioners. He visits prisoners, crack addicts, and the poor. Toward the end of the film, we see him take Marina's confession and give her communion. Another parishioner expresses thanks to the priest for bringing the Gospel to Bartlesville.

Father Quintana encourages those in his congregation to continue to love. He reminds them that love is not a feeling, but a duty Christ has commanded us to practice. He continues to love God, though he feels dry. The Father continues to pray in faith, "Christ be with me, come before me, behind me, in me, above me and below me."

In the film Night Moves, Gene Hackman's character says of films of Eric Romher, "Watching the films is like watching paint dry." There are many who feel the same way about Malick's films. Fortunately, I'm not here to review films, but the churches and the clergy in those films. I'm giving Father Quintana's ministry 3 Steeples.

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