Richard Brody describes Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder as a film in which “Catholic iconography and Protestant ideals tangle in the American heartland,” summarizing the heart of Malick’s religious vision this way:
For Malick, sacrament isn’t pageantry, isn’t style or theatre; it’s experience. The rigid mediation of such ostensibly Catholic filmmaking is the antithesis of his notion, his literal vision, of a cinema informed by the divine. Malick finds his vaulting spans in immediate vision: he films in a quasi-documentary manner, mixing his world-renowned stars with local residents and filming them on location with a devout attention to the natural landscape and modest, everyday, even banal settings (strip malls, tract housing, offices and stores, laundromats and restaurants of small-town streets).
Malick’s camera is neither weighed down by dogma nor by abstemiousness, neither by renunciation nor by ritual. His fluid, agile, impressionistic, ecstatic, awe-filled and joyful, yet essentially modest and intimate images suggest a transcendentally-guided trip through the world—a wandering that’s tethered to the light, a light that, seemingly beamed from the cathedral, lends a virtual architectural form to the inchoate open spaces of the landscape, and that seemingly guides bodies through it, weightlessly, transforming ordinary strolling into a sort of—well, a sort of ballet. The dancer herself, self-consciously dancing, is—despite her profane emotional voracity—a step closer to the divine than anyone in the movie, including the priest (who, however, graces those in his flock with a reflection of light that nonetheless hardly shines on him).
Josh Larsen, calling To the Wonder Malick’s “most earnest search for God and the film of his in which God is hardest to find,” further details the film’s religious themes here.