In A Hidden Life, the masterful, influential, and divisive director Terrence Malick brings his visually sumptuous and poetically complicated cinematic vocabulary to an epic poem in honor of Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter, a man who refused to fight for the Nazis in World War II. A poem? Perhaps it’s better to call it a symphony — it’s almost impossible to resist musical terminology when describing Malick’s style. Or maybe an allusion to the Sistine Chapel would be more appropriate. The effect of watching this film in a theatre — I hate to say it, but that’s really the only way to experience what Malick has to offer here — is that the details we see “on the ground” are always drawing our eyes skyward to remind us of the scale of the cosmos and the ever-presence of beauty and mystery.

Whatever  metaphor we reach for, we cannot deny that this is whole-hearted celebration of moral courage; a lament over the sufferings endured by those who embrace the call of Christ; an indictment of those align themselves with an Antichrist (especially those who betray the name of Jesus in doing so); and, ultimately, a weary but hopeful suggestion that God sees, God knows, and that God is drawing everyone — even those complicit in atrocities — back into his arms.

That may sounds like more than a movie can hold. But the fact is that A Hidden Life is more accessible, more linear in its storytelling, more focused in its themes and aspirations than anything Malick has made since Days of Heaven in 1978.

The outline of this simple narrative has inspired some to call A Hidden Life more conventional. Some — like David Ehrlich at Indiewire — declared that “Terrence Malick is back,” and complained about his last few films: “Malick has always been the cinema’s most devout searcher, his faith and uncertainty going hand-in-hand. But the work he’s made over the last few years hasn’t been searching so much as lost.”

Personally, I think it’s ridiculous to write off Malick’s last several films as some kind of misguided tangent, something to be dismissed. Yes, by nature of its simple narrative about one man’s difficult decision and the dominoes that fall from it, bringing heavy consequences upon himself and his family, A Hidden Life isn’t nearly as complicated as To the Wonder (2013), Knight of Cups (2015), or Song to Song (2017). Those films asked more of their audience, required more interpretation; they were storms of soul-searching among larger casts of characters in the midst of messy contemporary contexts. They were a more demanding form of poetry.

But in other ways, A Hidden Life is a continuation of what Malick’s been doing all along. If there’s one issue at the heart of all of Malick’s work, it’s the risk and responsibility that comes with pledging allegiance — to another human being, to a cultural tradition, to a national ideology, to God… or only to oneself. It’s as if his whole filmmaking career has been a response to Bob Dylan’s song “You Gotta Serve Somebody.” Over the last decade, characters played by Sean Penn, Ben Affleck, Christian Bale, Rooney Mara, and Ryan Gosling have suffered through all kinds of relationship troubles because of their fickle hearts, all of them as tangled up in blue in their searches for God as they are in their searches for a meaningful marriage. A Hidden Life’s images and dialogue circle similar questions about priorities: To whom should one be faithful? And what allegiances should have highest priority? What does it mean to be faithful to one’s marriage and to God? To be faithful to one’s country and to God? And how much should a person be willing to sacrifice for any of these commitments?

And what if fidelity to God requires us to put not only our own lives but others’ lives on the altar? After all, this is also the story of Franz Jägerstätter’s wife Franziska (Fani), their children, her sister, and his mother. Franz’s decision threatens to take him away from their quiet, hard-working routines on the farm. It risks a future in which they must keep the farm going on their own, labor in prayer for his safe return, and suffer the persecution of their disgruntled neighbors.

Come to think of it, these are dilemmas that have driven some of the most talked-about films of recent years — at least in communities of moviegoers concerned with questions of faith. Compare and contrast Marc Rothemund’s Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, Xavier Beauvois’s Of Gods and Men, Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents, Martin Scorsese’s Silence, Paul Shrader’s First Reformed, or — Scorsese again — The Irishman. What a challenging film festival we could organize, watching some of these in dialogue with A Hidden Life.

Just as I was moved watching all of those films I just mentioned, I was powerfully moved and challenged by A Hidden Life in a crowded theater.

Of course I was. Stories of those who, in the name of love, find their heads on the chopping block, face fundamentalist firing squads, or stand up against big-business distortions of the Church, are perhaps the most powerful, inspiring, world-shaping narratives known to humankind. They run against our basic animal tendencies to save ourselves. They suggest that there are more important things to consider than self-preservation. And they whisper to us that perhaps our idea of self-preservation is, in fact, self-destructive, and that the surrender of self for a higher cause might be the way toward the very peace our hearts desire.

But that’s not the only reason I was moved. To watch A Hidden Life in a theater is to see Malick’s work at the scale he intended. Nobody takes advantage of the big screen like Malick. He knows, perhaps more than any filmmaker alive, the power of nature’s beauty as a language that transcends the limitations of our spoken and written texts. Mountains loom over the audience. The not-so-subtle fish-eye-lens effect that alters much of the imagery creates an immersive you-are-there effect when seen at this scale. (I suspect it may be distracting and even aggravating on smaller screens; it tested my patience even on this grand canvas.) It’s also affecting to experience this with a large audience, as you can feel tensions rise, hearts break , and, perhaps, even a raising of silent prayers.

The more time I spend with Malick’s films, the more I sense that he is not manipulating images to insist upon some predetermined meaning, but that he is seeking what the cosmos themselves might mean. As C.S. Lewis said of all true artists, we do not create — we re-arrange aspects that God has “provided.” “And that is surely why our works never mean to others quite what we intended,” Lewis writes, “because we are recombining elements made by Him and already containing His meanings. Because of those divine meanings in our materials it is impossible that we should ever know the whole meaning of our works and the meaning we never intended may be the best and truest one.”

I think Malick would be delighted and surprised by the revelations his more attentive viewers experience while watching his work. By following his intuitions as a “reader” of life, teasing out the implications that emerge as he looks from human behavior to nature and back again, he is leading us into contemplation that cannot be easily paraphrased. A Hidden Life is poetry in pictures, and thus endlessly suggestive and mysterious. When he cuts from an image of a woman in prayer to a magnificent tree bending in the wind, and then to a long and lyrical shot of a river winding around all obstructions in answer to the sea’s gravitational call, he will leave some viewers thinking “Those are pretty pictures.” But those “with eyes to see and ears to hear” will understand that these images give us a way to think about the Soul, the direction of its yearning, its source and its destination.

And there is yet another reason that I was moved. Recalling the message of that terrifying angel in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, the giant who appears in a spotlight to tell the detective that “It’s happening again,” this movie burns with prophetic urgency.

It speaks to me directly in the audience, saying, “Pay attention. The forces of evil that tested the faith of Franz and Fani Jägerstätter have risen again. They’re here now, all around you — in your own country, your own city, your own community. Even this movie theater, there are those who are afraid of immigrants, afraid of skin unlike their own, afraid of anyone who seems different or speaks an unfamiliar language. There are those who are drawn to figures of coercive and violent power because they think that these tyrants can give them safety or advance the cause of Christ. Be vigilant. The Antichrist is a spirit that rises again and again, saying ‘Be afraid of your strange new neighbors. Fight to recreate the more comfortable and familiar world you once new.’ Do you really believe in love? Are you ready to take up your cross and fulfill the greatest pledge of allegiance?”

Perhaps your experience will be different. Perhaps it will say something new to you.

And perhaps my feeling of inspiration, that surge of admiration for Franz’s courage and zeal to stand up for Truth, comes too easily. Perhaps it’s a confidence that would crumble under the first wave of a direct challenge. I don’t know. I think the movie wants me to ask this.

At this particular point in the history — the tearing down of American democracy by an uprising of white supremacists, nationalists, and religious extremists; England’s self-interested and narrow-minded departure from a community of nations collaborating on a better future — it’s hard not to feel those surges of enthusiasm at the sight of a conscientious objector staying true to the ideals of the Gospel.

And yet….

This is the point where I must acknowledge that, while many of my friends and colleagues are hailing A Hidden Life as not only Malick’s greatest masterpiece but also one of the greatest films ever made, I also feel some frustrations with this film.

For all of the film’s swells of aesthetic and musical beauty, its constant enthusiasm for timely rays of light, for panoramic views of natural beauty, and for symphonic crescendos of familiar classical compositions (Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa gets particular attention here), A Hidden Life does not captivate and enthrall me as earlier Malick films have.

My frustrations may well be due to the fact that I’ve seen all of his films several times, and I am so familiar with his style that I can walk through my day imagining with some confidence just how he would film particular spaces and how he would coach his actors to engage those environments. This film gives me the impression that Malick is just too eager this time to achieve a familiar transcendence, and not willing enough to live with these characters in substantial scenes, observing the distinctive details of their days and their difficulties.

From his debut Badlands in 1973 to what I would argue to be his greatest masterpieces — The New World (2006) and The Tree of Life (2011)Malick has made a few of my favorite films. But even in The Tree of Life, as I made clear in my early reflections on the film (including two-part review of first impressions at Image), I was beginning to feel a repetitiveness in his images that, for a while, seemed like a deliberate endeavor to place the films in dialogue with one another. It’s the visual equivalent of what it would be like if he began weaving five or six pieces of music in and out of all of his movies — it would be distracting to those who notice.

In addition to the over-familiarity of certain images, there is the increasing familiarity of how his characters speak and move through space. The more he wrestles his philosophically and theologically complex questions, the more the voices of his characters — and their body language as well — all blur into a disappointing ‘sameness.’ That may be a statement about brotherhood, but it makes words and the voices that raise them less interesting. It’s increasingly obvious that his actors wander around being coached by offscreen voices that might be saying “Look like you’re suffering a memory of grief. Now raise your eyes to heaven. Now… you’re playing! You and your family are playing! Chase each other and laugh!”

Even more disappointingly, Malick’s visual poetry, which has worked in such distinctive, complex, and surprising ways in the past, is becoming increasingly predictable. It’s also becoming simpler, as if he’s been listening to those impatient critics who, like literature students who want to “solve” a poem upon first reading, punished The Tree of Life for being confoundingly inscrutable. (I recently co-hosted a community conversation following a screening of The Tree of Life, and we were able to find exciting ways to read just about every scene in the film, finding coherence, integrity, and glory in its architecture. It felt like an in-depth study of Eliot’s “The Four Quartets.”)

I suppose I could look on one of the film’s bright sides: Maybe A Hidden Life is the best film for introducing people to Malick’s work. It’s easy to care about these characters and their dilemma, and the suspense of it carries us easily through the more abstract flourishes. If someone likes this one, maybe they’re ready for Days of Heaven or The New World — and maybe someday they’ll be up for the surrealistic struggle of Knight of Cups or the monumental task of climbing The Tree of Life.

So, yes, I have come to praise Malick — I admire this film. Any I’m glad it exists. B-grade Malick is, in my book, still more meaningful and magnificent than most filmmakers’ A-grade work. Any movie that inspires a response as unforgettable as this testimony I stumbled across on Letterboxd is a treasure worth celebrating.

But I come also to justify my lack of enthusiasm about this film — specifically, for friends and colleagues who have called it the crowning achievement of a magnificent career. I’ve held back for more than a month since the advance screening in Seattle that Image hosted; I’ve been reluctant to voice some disappointment with any cinematic appeal to the conscience, any movie that asks us to remember the teachings of Jesus Christ, any art that urges us to reject contracts with an Antichrist. In the light of this film, it is easy to see how that too many in America’s evangelical Christian culture prefer to do deals with the Devil than to walk the hard and sacrificial road of true Christianity.

But I miss the days when Malick movies surprised me and gave me that sense of revelation, that I was experiencing a kind of cinema I’d never experienced before. I suppose it’s unfair of me to make an issue of this, since artists who can break through to such new visions come along once or twice in a generation, and even rarer are those who sustain a drive for innovation and discovery to the end of their careers.

More importantly, though, I miss characters who captivated me and discomforted me with a familiar human complexity. I still hope for a recovery of distinctive characters and voices like those that inhabited The New World and the best stretches of The Tree of Life. I miss the man who gave us the idiosyncrasy and grit of Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in Badlands — they sounded like real people. Franz is inspiring, but he would have been more inspiring if he had seemed more particular, less of a stained-glass-window sort of saint; his words are rarely more complex than “What do we do if our leaders are bad?”

In that sense, A Hidden Life has exactly one scene that sticks with me, only one that feels particularly thought-provoking. We’re introduced to a painter, played by Johan Leysen, who is illuminating the walls and ceilings of a church with depictions of saints. As he does, he laments — like the self-doubting artist of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev — the insufficiency of his artistic endeavors: “I paint their comfortable Christ, with a halo over his head. Someday, I’ll paint the true Christ.” (In this moment, we may be hearing the filmmaker himself; Malick’s next movie, after all, will be the first he has made about Jesus, the Apostle Peter, and the Devil.)

Here, I see a glimmer of what could have been a far more interesting and compelling film. As stories of Christian martyrs go, A Hidden Life doesn’t strike me as being nearly as curious about, or as attentive to, its characters as Of Gods and Men or Sophie Scholl: The Final Days.

In his poetic masterpiece Wings of Desire, director Wim Wenders immersed audiences in a symphony of interior voices, the thoughts and prayers of the people of Berlin. But he didn’t stop there: He also animated angels that drifted through the city, listening in on human hearts and then comparing notes with one another about the trouble and the glory they found there. That screenplay was penned by a poet — Peter Handke — and it’s easy to imagine how the film could have seemed pretentious, pious, overly literary, and detached from the grit of human experience. But it wasn’t. Those voices were textured and detailed, so that I count some of the exchanges between Bruno Ganz, Otto Sander, Peter Falk, and Solveig Dommartin among my favorite conversations in cinema. A movie can be both elevated and grounded, cerebral and salty, contemplative and complicated.

Here’s hoping that Malick will, in his upcoming film about Christ, Peter, and Satan, bless them with human voices as distinct as those that Wenders gave humans and angels. With closer attention to his characters’ complexity, he may yet provide the cinema with something it’s been missing: a powerfully and redemptively discomforting Christ.

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