Terrence Malick lovers are going to mesmerized by “A Hidden Life,” his latest, and perhaps even greatest, work in years. As a huge fan of the director’s films, this three hour ethereal work of art plays like an extended dream and is textbook Malick perfection. But for those who find his films trying rather than celebrating his cinematic genius, this will likely prove to be yet another bore.
Based on real events, this film is the story of a mostly unknown heroic Austrian farmer, Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), who refused to fight for the Nazis during World War II. This conscientious objector is ostracized by his village and eventually is threatened with execution for treason. Franz eventually is thrown into jail, but he never falters with his brave stance. Instead, he stands for what he feels is morally right, clinging to his faith and the love for his wife Fanni (Valerie Pachner) and children to keep his spirit afloat.
Admittedly, the film is much longer than it should be. There isn’t much more than 30 minutes of story, but it’s told with a philosophical beauty that eases the passage of time. That’s what makes the film an experience instead of a literal, traditional tale. Jörg Widmer’s cinematography is masterful with a lyrical, visual poetry. Wide-angle shots of waving wheat fields and snow-capped peaks of the Austrian Alps shrouded in the clouds are jaw-dropping. The film is a collection of sensory visuals that will make viewers feel as if they’re right there, reaching out to touch the just-rained-on grass or struggling with the animals on the farm. I could smell the thunderstorm. I could feel the crisp mountain air.
Malick is a complicated director who isn’t easy to endure much less like, but his storytelling is grandiose yet takes pause at the simplest aspects of life and survival. This is not a film for the impatient, as there is a lot of plowing, whispering, and slow-moving, indulgent visuals. It’s best to think of “A Hidden Life” as a meditation on morality, conviction, and existence, or a timely theme of spiritual struggles that arise from fighting for your beliefs and doing what you know is right.
Perhaps this is what the devout refer to as a “religious experience.” I am not a spiritual person, but the beauty of this film moved me.