True to form, director Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life) deals with the loftier spiritual and existential matters of life in his mournful new film, A Hidden Life. Taken from a George Eliot passage about those who -silently sacrifice their lives for the good of others, Malick based the film on the true story of Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) and his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner).
The two live in the idyllic farm village of Radegund in Austria with their daughters. They spend their days bouncing around lush green hills, tilling fields, picking wildflowers and harvesting wheat—all the while stealing loving glances and childlike smiles reminiscent of Bill and Abby, the love struck sharecroppers from Malick's 1978 film Days of Heaven.
"How simple life was then. It seemed no trouble could reach our valley," Franz says.
But the trouble does reach their valley in 1940 as their pastoral bliss is shattered when Franz is summoned into the Army. At this point in the war, every Austrian soldier called for active duty had to swear loyalty to Hitler. Franz doesn't agree with the Nazi agenda and becomes a conscientious objector by refusing to swear the oath, getting himself imprisoned in Berlin.
While he remains steadfast in his beliefs—not even able to swear the oath with metaphorically crossed fingers—the townspeople, who have lost countless loved ones to the cause Franz rebukes, begin to ostracize Fani and her children, forcing her to do all the strenuous farm labor with only the help of her equally petite sister (Maria Simon) and Franz' stern mother Rosalia (Karin Neuhäuser).
A Hidden Life thus becomes one big "Pfui Hitler!" to the Nazi officers who continually try to convince Franz his defiance isn't doing anyone any good, least of all himself and his family.
"You think it will change the course of things?" one officer asks him.
And later another says, "No one will be changed. The worlds will go on as before."
It's hard not to wish Franz would just give up already, especially as we watch Fani and her family suffer the hardships of life without their beloved around. But with all the heavy-handed Christ allegories being drawn—cue Bach's St. Matthew Passion—we pretty much know that isn't going to happen.
Malick's decision to get political is a timely one, and it's impossible not to draw the comparisons between 1940s Austria and 2020 America. Unfortunately, the comparison isn't hugely revelatory and neither is the message; A Hidden Life is as slow and plodding as a pair of Austrian clogs, but the subtle acting, poetic cinematography (Jörg Widmer) and staggering mountain backdrops make it worthwhile.
+Beautiful scenery, meditative performances
-Feels conventional, nothing revelatory
A Hidden Life
Directed by Malick
With Diehl and Pachner
Violet Crown, R, 174 min.