On the surface, A Hidden Life is a return to form for Terrence Malick after his oddly prolific period during which he appeared to have made twenty-seven experimental films starring Christian Bale in Texas.
The structure of the film is built like a visit to a cathedral and attending one very long mass: the tone reverent, the pacing like a pilgrimage, the cinematography of the Austrian mountains breathtaking, and the music heavenly.
It tells the simple tale of one farmer’s moral objection to fighting in WWII and refusal to pledge loyalty to Hitler, and it has all of the philosophical and religious pondering one would expect from Malick.
But I had two major objections of my own to Malick’s latest.
POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD
First, in being everything you would expect from a Malick film, there is no sense of surprise or delight to be found. I could’ve predicted every single framing of beautiful imagery and light. And at nearly three-hours long, the artistic images and music are on what seems like an endless loop with no end in sight. There’s no sense of the that cosmic chaos and fluidity that made The Tree of Life a masterpiece, or any of that earthy yet otherworldly novelty that made The New World astound the senses. The narrative also falls victim to some of the most grueling clichés of both rustic cinema verité (oh look, a pig being slaughtered and an innocent little girl observing the carnage) and “false imprisonment” films where the main character is always transferred to progressively worse institutions.
Secondly, and perhaps more damning, I couldn’t relate to the Christian concept of martyrdom. I understood the farmer’s original and courageous objections to war and Hitler’s worldview. There comes a point in time after he has already suffered (and made his point) where he was given a practical and sensible way out that would’ve spared his life and brought him back to his wife and daughters who so desperately needed him. Yet he staunchly refuses on principle. So he dies, leaving his family to suffer in his absence, and is executed as a traitor…and for what? The idea of dying for your beliefs (or in defiance of the evil beliefs of others) is just as senseless in my mind as the ones on the opposite end of the spectrum who are willing to kill to uphold the evil ideas of people like Hitler. Both extremes are willing to die in rebellion against the natural will to survive. Isn’t this perhaps the same brand of insanity?
Even Malick seems to concede that this is the central conundrum: one can nobly die for any cause…but when it doesn’t change the course of events and only causes your loved ones’ suffering, what was it all for? The farmer’s wife muses that one day (in the end), all that is unknown will be known. We’ll finally understand what it was all for. I’m all for mysteries, but that’s just a blind faith, and it’s that kind of blind faith that leads people down the extreme paths to play both the sinner and the saint, willing to die.
What kind of world would it be if we were all martyrs?
I was looking forward to this, but now I’m not so sure!
There’s still some stuff to admire here…I just didn’t connect to it on a personal level and found the run time a major burden. Other Malick fans have been more kind to the film.
John I really hope you give this a shot. For me is the second greatest Malick film behind only Tree of Life.
I didn’t understand the concept of martyrdom either either David, but that is the entire point of the film. He was a conscientious objector and wouldn’t bend his principles regardless of the sure death he was facing. Malick told a true story and underlined it with his fascinating and lyrical ruminations. For me your second objection doesn’t hold water either. I am not looking for surprises I am looking for a soulful philosophical investigation into this material. For me neither of your issues mitigate this towering masterpiece which for me is no sitting at #2 on my year end list with a week and some crucial films to see. As always I enjoy your writing. Merry Christmas!