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Cannes: Terrence Malick’s ‘A Hidden Life’ is a return to form and a spiritual call to arms

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Valerie Pachner and August Diehl in Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life.”
(Iris Productions)
Film Critic

Times critic Justin Chang is filing regular dispatches from the 72nd annual Cannes Film Festival, which runs May 14-25 in France.

In the eight years since Terrence Malick won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for “The Tree of Life,” his magisterial drama about childhood’s end and the spirit’s awakening, the standard critical line is that he has become an artist lost in the wilderness, stranded in an artistic limbo of his own making.

His most recent features — “To the Wonder,” “Knight of Cups” and “Song to Song” — are wispy, fragmentary tales of romantic ennui and moral drift, full of visual beauty but absent a comparable sense of transcendence. I admired them more than many of my colleagues did, though it would be disingenuous not to admit that I, too, was left wondering if this great and singular filmmaker would ever give us another movie to love.

I wonder no more. Sunday marked Malick’s return to Cannes, and it felt like a homecoming in more than one sense. His extraordinarily beautiful and wrenching new movie is called “A Hidden Life,” a title that quotes from “Middlemarch,” though one that could easily be misinterpreted as a reference to this famously press-shy auteur himself. But it also sounds an echo of “The Tree of Life,” which may be more than mere coincidence: If that 2011 film was Malick’s most personal and autobiographical work, then this one feels like a decisive return to roots. It’s at once a linear, almost classically structured drama and an exploratory, intensely romantic work of art.

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“A Hidden Life” tells the story of Franz Jägerstätter, a peasant farmer from the Austrian village of St. Radegund who was imprisoned and executed in 1943 for refusing to fight for the Nazis. It’s the writer-director’s second World War II picture, after “The Thin Red Line,” except that here not a single shot is fired. The focus is entirely on Jägerstätter and his family, his growing discontent as Austria falls into Adolf Hitler’s grip and his heroic, ultimately fatal decision to become a conscientious objector.

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August Diehl and Bruno Ganz in the movie "A Hidden Life."
(Reiner Bajo)

After some brief archival footage of Hitler at the height of his powers, the movie settles down in St. Radegund, whose rolling green pastures and mist-wreathed mountains may constitute the most astonishing vision of earthly paradise Malick has given us, which is saying something.

You will recognize some familiar sights and sounds: the babbling of a brook, the rustling of wind in the leaves, the orchestral blasts of Bach, Beethoven, Handel and Dvorak on the soundtrack. And you will settle into the movie with a sigh — or perhaps a groan, depending on your persuasion — as Malick immerses us in yet another blissfully idealized evocation of family life.

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Pushing plows, threshing wheat and taking care of livestock is hard work, but Franz (a haunting August Diehl), a man of joy and contentment, also loves chasing and playing with his wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner) and their three young daughters. But the family’s deep ties to the land and the surrounding community are disrupted when their fellow villagers take up the call of “Heil Hitler,” submitting freely to the grip of a murderous totalitarian regime. When a local bishop urges Franz to submit as well, he makes a decisive break with the church — though not, crucially, with God, whom he continually presses and wrestles with in prayer.

I am still wrestling with “A Hidden Life” myself, and imagine I will continue to do so long after its eventual release. The lengthy middle act, in which Franz finds himself called up for military duty and imprisoned after refusing to fight, feels lumbering and oppressive, which may of course be entirely the point; the claustrophobia here is physical and spiritual. Given the ensemble cast, which includes the late Bruno Ganz in one of his final roles, I wish that Malick had simply committed to shooting entirely in German, rather than a mix of German and English. (A particularly nagging choice: The Nazis are often heard barking in German, while Franz and Fani’s mellifluous voice-overs are in English.)

But the conviction of this movie would speak forcefully in any language. “A Hidden Life” is both an intense portrait of Christian devotion in practice and a damning study in how religious institutions, among others, can align themselves with evil. Malick sees no contradiction between these two truths; for him, sincere doubt and serious belief have always gone hand-in-hand. When a character murmurs, “To follow Him is insanity” — the first and not the last time the movie quietly broke me — you register fully what it might mean, and cost, to obey a doctrine of peace in violent times.

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August Diehl in "A Hidden Life."
(Reiner Bajo)

Malick may be making the same movie he always has: a gorgeously expansive cinematic poem that is forever carving out fresh emotional tributaries, but which always cycles back to the despoiling of Eden, the fear of violence and mortality, the calm acceptance of the unknowable. But if his camera is still given to flurries of ecstatic movement, it also seems more stationary, more grounded than usual, as if the director were pausing to gather his thoughts and clear his throat. He has an awful lot to say.

At its simplest level, “A Hidden Life” exists to disprove the snarling Nazi soldiers we hear telling Franz that his act of protest is meaningless and that no one will ever remember him. (They have admittedly already been disproved, thanks to the scholarship of Gordon Zahn and Thomas Merton, as well as a 2007 papal declaration of Jägerstätter as a martyr.) But it is also a call for moral vigilance in any era, the present one very much included: It is hard to watch this movie and not think of the rise of far-right and nationalist movements across Europe, or the Trump administration’s chokehold on evangelical Christianity.

That particular charge may be implicit, but it’s also unmistakable. Unless you are allergic to near-three-hour running times, there is nothing particularly difficult or elusive about “A Hidden Life,” nothing too cosmically elevated or metaphysically overreaching, to cite some of the dismissals frequently leveled against this director’s work. If we understand pretension as an attitude that leaves no room for humility, then is there any filmmaker working today less pretentious than Terrence Malick, any artist more generous and unassuming in the way he exalts the beauty of the everyday?

Just as importantly, in our era of ever-expanding options and decreasing patience, is there an audience still willing to accept that challenge and see that beauty as he does? Even when tarnished, Malick’s legend looms large at a festival like Cannes, where he can be dismissed as a scourge and hailed as a god, but where he will never elicit an indifferent response. He deserves an equally impassioned reception when this imperfect, wise and entirely heroic movie comes out of hiding.

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justin.chang@latimes.com


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