December 20, 2019

Ryan Bordow

Review: ‘A Hidden Life’ is beautifully filmed, morally compelling

One could describe the life of writer/director Terrence Malick as “hidden”. The filmmaker is famously private—he hasn’t been interviewed since 1979, and his rare public appearances are treated like miraculous apparitions. He’s earned his reputation: his greatest films, like The Tree of Life and The Thin Red Line, are some of the best that the art form has ever seen. His output over the last few years, though, hasn’t been as prolific. His three most recent features are widely known as his weakest.  They’re not bad, by any means, but his ethereal, spiritual style began to feel more self-indulgent than substantial. But now at the end of the decade, his new film A Hidden Life is being hailed as a comeback—it’s certainly not lacking in Malick’s favored substance.

The Christian worldview has always buoyed Malick’s work. The touches of Christianity pervading his filmography have never been blatant or dogmatic, but they’ve been fairly explicit: liturgical narration, theological discussions, and allegories for the personhood of God are common Malick motifs. Instead of using religious themes as a didactic cudgel, he uses them as hints, signposts for navigating the vast mystery of life—his films are more interested in questions than answers, and so he’s never made anything that could be termed a “Christian film”. But A Hidden Life is the closest he’s ever come to it.

The film tells the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer whom the Nazis imprisoned and executed for refusing to serve under Adolf Hitler. His conscientious objection was spurred on in part by his Catholic values, which led to the Catholic Church recognizing him as a martyr 64 years after his death. But for a while, Jägerstätter’s life was unknown to the world—thus the movie’s title and running theme.

Multiple times throughout the film, Nazi soldiers tell Jägerstätter that his actions cannot change the world, that the fight will not stop because one man refuses it on moral grounds. They tell him that God has not expressly sanctioned his pacifism, and thus he’s a weak man rather than a devoted believer. But through his signature style, Malick rejects the notion of a distant God whose instructions cannot be heard from beyond the clouds, demonstrating instead the earthly, tangible Christ.

Malick’s penchant for wide-angled landscapes and long, meditative shots helps him establish the feeling of a God up above. Jägerstätter and his family live on a mountain that touches the sky, an idyllic farmland centered on work and the church. When characters are at their happiest and holiest, they’re framed from low angles, aligning their existence with the peaceful sky above them. Their lives flow serenely and uninterrupted through Malick’s patient lens. But Malick poisons this visual ideology early on: Nazi warplanes cut through the sky’s tranquility, and when Jägerstätter’s stance begins to cause trouble, rainclouds darken the once vibrant vistas. If gloom and hate can overtake the heavens, God must be found elsewhere.

Malick doesn’t play coy with his divine revelation: an early scene wherein an artist paints Jesus on the walls of a church is a transparent stand-in for Malick’s mission statement. As the artist paints a heavenly, spotless Jesus, he laments that he can only paint the “comfortable Christ”, as only those who have suffered greatly can envision the “true Christ”. Malick, who’s faced accusations of valuing aestheticism over deeper meaning, might as well be making this admission himself.

So, in an act of cinematic apologism, he depicts Jägerstätter as the quintessential Christ figure: bloody, dirty, beaten and executed for his commitment to virtue. Yet in the midst of these circumstances, Jägerstätter is found giving bread to other prisoners, embracing a friend who’s suffering alongside him, and sacrificing himself to physical costs. A Hidden Life is full of small moments that find God on the ground. But over the movie’s three-hour runtime, the continual stressing of Jägerstätter as the crucified Christ wears thin. Unlike similar religious epics like Silence, there is no question of what Jesus would or should do—Jägerstätter never wrestles with the hard questions that his loved ones ask of him, like whether it would be moral to serve as a medic in Hitler’s army, healing and witnessing from within. The best path is readily clear to Jägerstätter, and in the absence of internal conflict, the film repetitiously paints the true Christ on the same canvas.

But does Malick succeed in envisioning the crushed Christ? In a purely cinematic sense, I’d argue he doesn’t. Malick avoids any and all violent imagery—even beatings are shown from a first-person perspective, so that we don’t see the brutalized body—which is counterintuitive to shedding the image of the comfortable Christ. Though A Hidden Life is beautifully filmed, morally compelling, and swimming in ancient wisdom, the power of seeing Christ broken on the cross is discernibly absent.

★★★½   (3.5/5)