There’s a stereotype of a Terrence Malick film, if you’re feeling mean. Beautiful, sure; but also a glorified perfume ad, full of twirling girls and little substance. His most recent efforts – To the Wonder, Knight of Cups and Song to Song – have all flirted with that stereotype, and although they have their moments, all represent lesser works in his oeuvre. A Hidden Life is a typical Malick film to the hilt, and it’s also his best film in years.
The cinematography is as beautiful and ethereal as always, but it has real purpose and meaning within the story. Franz (August Diehl) and Franzista (Valerie Pachner) are Austrian farmers living a peaceful life until he is forced to enlist in the army and swear allegiance to Hitler. Every breathtaking vista of a mist-wreathed hillside is a reminder of the idyllic home that is at stake.
Malick is a sensuous and tactile filmmaker, and that impulse has rarely been more valuable. He’s always lingered on closeups of lovers gently embracing or touching hands, but these tender moments mean so much more when that love is under siege.
Diehl has the whole film to carry, and his ability to sell the moral anguish of a man forced to choose between allegiance to an evil tyrant and returning to a family he loves is the key to the film’s brilliance.
Malick’s direction is particularly great when picking out the tiny aggressions within the village, as peer pressure and shame turn Franzista’s home into a hell. He also emphatically proves he can still deliver substance with possibly his best script yet, slowly and mercilessly plotting out the arguments and quandaries that mark Franz’s path.
Malick’s style is best-suited to serious stories and this one is the perfect vehicle for him to deliver a poetic, heartbreaking masterpiece.
CAST: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Michael Nyqvist
DIRECTOR: Terrence Malick
WRITER: Terrence Malick
SYNOPSIS: Austrian Franz Jägerstätter (Diehl), a conscientious objector, refuses to fight for the Nazis in World War II.
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