Terrence Malick’s latest is a magnetic, contemplative and epic film that asks big, timely questions coupled with fantastic technical credits and performances
A return to form of some sorts after a couple minor films, A Hidden Life has the same feel as The Tree of Life. Contemplative, sobering, atmospheric and gorgeously shot, this is a film that may be less accessible than TREE but is nevertheless immensely picturesque, deeply thoughtful and magnificently crafted.
Centering on a family living in Radegund (the film’s original title), an Austrian village where life is simple, serene and quiet, the film tells the story of local farmer Franz Jägerstätter (wonderfully by August Diehl) who refuses to join the Nazi forces during world war II only to then be shunned, shamed and forced to eventually join. His wife Franziska (played sublimely by Valerie Pachner) is the only one to respect and support this decision while others, including family and neighbors, urge him to retract his decision so as not to be labelled a traitor.
Over the span of three hours, we follow Franz’s journey, from the beautiful mountain hills to the harsh prison world. It is a story of resilience and utter resistance to conformity, herd mentality and bullying. But it’s also a story of faith and the lack of it. Malick has perhaps never been quite that willing to discuss faith in such manner – and he employs such theme perfectly as both lead characters wrestle with purpose.
Disguised as a period biopic (the film is based on true events), A Hidden Life is far from conventional. Some will dub it overlong and over-stretched, and the film does indeed take its time and may have needed some trimming, but it remains a powerful, intellectual piece of work. Malick is clearly not interested in handling things lightly or superficially or in linear fashion. At some points, he wants to deliberately frustrate his audience, lock them between prison cells and agony, only to let them escape visually moments after to the life Franz once had. The character may be frustrating to some, especially after refusing multiple times to join the Nazi forces even if this is on the expense of his life with his family, but it’s all true.
In lieu of sentimentality, an element that typically marks (and sometimes even plagues) period pics, Malick injects much intellectual elements to make this a picture that appeals to the mind and not just the heart. Some may feel they’ve been kept at arms’ length and not fully engaged with the film’s characters but it’s because this what Malick is after. Those expecting a weepy play at heartstrings will be disappointed, although more contemplative audience will certainly be touched by the epic and yet intimate retelling of this story.
The film boasts stellar credits, most notably a stunning cinematography that’s incredibly joyous to look at, capturing everything from nature to prisons, character gazes to passionate hands, landscapes to tiny cells where sunlight is scarce.
It may not be everyone’s tea, but it doesn’t need to. A Hidden Life is a film for the ages, a film to soak in, absorb and think about for a long time. A superb film by a truly unique filmmaker.