Hidden Life, A: Terrence Malick’s Teturn to Form, Lush if Simplistic Romantic War Drama

After nearly a decade of searching–literally and figuratively–new cinematic forms to fit his eccentric imagination and quirky originality, Terrence Malick is back on terra ferma with A Hidden Life, a lyrical love story set in WWI.

World premiering at the 2019 Cannes Film Fest, where Malick had won the 2011 Palme d’Or for Tree of Life (his last good movie), A Hidden Life is not so much a point of departure for Malick. Rather, it’s an extension of explorations of life during war time, a theme that was beautifully rendered in the 1998 Oscar nominee, The Thin Red Line, still his richest, more complex feature to date.

Inspired by a real-life figure and true events, A Hidden Life is much simpler in both narrative and characterization than that 1998 film.  But despite thematic shortcomings and stylistic indulgences, sporadically, the new feature is quite effective emotionally.

Our Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

Since Malick won the Palme d’Or at Cannes nine years ago, he has made rambling, largely disappointing films, such To the Wonder, Knight of Cups and Song to Song.

The new film was misunderstood by some critics in Cannes, who charged Malick with self-indulgence in extending what’s an intimate love story to the scale of an epic, boasting a running time of two hours and 40 minutes.

The entrepreneurial Fox Searchlight, which had release successfully The Tree of Life, and turned it into an Oscar nominated film, acquired the rights to Hidden Life after its Cannes premiere.  It’s a risky proposition to pay some $11 million for an art film par excellence, which has already divided critics and viewers

In Hidden Life, as both writer-director, Malick takes on true-life material for the first time in his career, depicting an Austrian man who paid the ultimate price for his conscientious objector stance against the Nazis during World War II.

Based on the evidence on screen, Malick is not particularly interested in exploring the moral, religious and political elements of the story.  Nor in dealing with the socio-political context of upper Austria before and at the beginning of WWII, after Hitler pulled his native country into the Reich.

After an opening in which black-and-white newsreel footage from the time lays out the Fuehrer’s rise and march to war, the film settles down in a stunningly beautiful precinct of northern Austria. Shot by Malick and cinematographer Jorg Widmer (a Steadicam operator Malick’s Song to Song), te movie is gorgeous to look at.

Living in a large farm in the sliAlpine paradise, Franz Jagerstatter (played by the handsome actor August Diehl) is happily married to the beautiful and sturdy wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner) raising their young daughters.

When Franz is first called up by the Reich for military training, in 1940, he goes along with it, though writing a letter home, he wonders, “What’s happened to our country?”

After he’s released to return home and toil in the harvest, Franz confides his misgivings to the local priest, who warns him he might be shot for objecting, claiming, “Your sacrifice would benefit no one.”

From this point on, the character becomes silent; there are long stretches during which Franz doesn’t say a word, even to his wife, which distances him from his family.

He becomes a conscientious objector to the war and military service, fully aware that this is capital offense.  Reportedly, the motivation of the real Jagerstatter’s behavior was religious, but faith is altogether ignored in the film, as is his reluctance to discuss the matter with his wife. Increasingly, he becomes almost entirely internal and non-communicative, living quietly his day-to-day life up until his execution.

As is often the case with Malick, the film’s most powerful sequences are silent, or dialogue-free. Often, the imagery, especially in the first hour, is so strong that there is no needs for words.

This is a film in which Malick only partially succeeds in externalizing and internalizing his true-life story and the two protagonists.

In Malick’s latent interpretation, Jagerstatter’s objections go beyond politics and religion–they seem to be deeply moral and personal, representing an inner conscience battle of the highest order.

Though they are very different men, operating in different political contexts, Jagerstatter evolves into a Man for All Seasons, much like the hero of Zinnemann’s 1966 Oscar winning film, starring Paul Scofield.

Ultimately, the movie comes across as a celebration of the power of love and sacrifice at all costs–it’s an unconditional love in the best sense of this term. It also turns A Hidden Life into Malick’s most conventional and philosophically simplistic feature, a far cry from the sublime Badlands and Days of Heaven, back in the 1970s.

It could be that Malick has made a deliberate choice not to offer explicit explanations, so that the ambiguity of the character would be read in various ways by different segments of the audnvc