A Hidden Life

With each new film, Terrence Malick burrows even deeper into his niche. He’s an artist in the truest sense of the word, with his recent body of work consisting of uncompromising and challenging films that serve as sublime visual poetry for some and patience-burning wastes of time for others. A Hidden Life is his most narratively straightforward film since The New World, but it’s no less abstract than his work since, and, especially with its lengthy runtime, it’s clearly not an attempt to convert those who find his deliberate pacing and and delicate tone insufferable.

The Tree of Life won Malick the Palme d’Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, and though he’s now made as many films in the years since as he did in the nearly four decades before, to many it still remains his crowning achievement, and certainly his most emotionally potent and visually stunning film of the decade. To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song found Malick further exploring his trademark style of visual poetic expressionism through subjective, energetic camerawork and existential voice-over passages, but it occasionally, sometimes often, veered into self-parody, with many critics (and certainly most uninitiated audiences) dismissing his work as pretentious. In this sense, A Hidden Life is refreshing because it’s the first time in years that Malick’s experimented with a more tangible and linear narrative.

The film follows Franz, a meek Austrian farmer who lives with his wife Franziska and their three daughters in a small village in St. Radegund in 1939. Franz’s modest life is shattered when WWII erupts and he’s called to training, and eventually to fight in the war, which requires him to swear an oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler. He refuses to pledge this oath, leading to his arrest and a long psychological and philosophical journey wrestling with his decision. Remaining steadfast in his opposition will lead to his death, but bending to the will of the Nazis opposes his moral beliefs. The majority of the film tracks his anguish as he grows exceedingly weary that his moral obligation to stay resilient is at odds with the practical fact that he will lose his life and leave his family without a father.

It’s harrowing material, which mostly benefits from Malick’s immensely empathetic approach, but the stream-of-consciousness poetic style grows tiresome, especially nearing the end of the robust 173-minute runtime. The emotional crux of the film lies in the final hour, but by then, Malick has emotionally drained and physically exhausted his audience with the languid pacing and unrelentingly dreary tone. The unintended consequence is that, in a story that means life and death for the protagonist, the audience grows impatient for the end, especially those not attuned to Malick’s proclivity for slow cinema.

More detrimental than the characteristically uncompromising pacing, though, is the writing. By tackling more narrative-driven material, Malick steps outside of his comfort zone and feels the need to compensate with characters delivering often painfully obvious dialogue or needless exposition. He’s a master of creating an atmosphere and sustaining an emotional undercurrent, but here he undercuts the abstraction by having his characters explicitly state their feelings. The result is uneven and sadly feels like a master filmmaker unconfident in their own ability.

One of the film’s major strengths is the cinematography. Working without his regular cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, for the first time in over 20 years, Malick has found an admirable substitute in Jörg Widmer, who was the camera operator on Malick’s last three features as well as other prestigious films like Amour, The White Ribbon, and Inglourious Basterds. Widmer perfectly replicates the hypnotic, intimate cinematography that elevates even the weaker entries of Malick’s recent work. The visuals are lush and intoxicating, especially on a big screen, and make the film worth seeing for those willing to invest the time and patience.

While many may welcome the return to more narrative-focused material from Malick – his last few did not fare well with critics or audiences – and the setting provides some captivating images of vast landscapes, the daunting runtime will be a major hurdle for most, especially those unfamiliar with Malick’s singular style. And the very small minority who found his recent work alluring in its ambiguity and obscurity will be disappointed by how much Malick feels the need to state the obvious. A Hidden Life is inarguably beautiful, but not as resonant as it should be; an uneven effort from an already divisive filmmaker.


B- Middleburg Review

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