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Review: A Hidden Life

December 20, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Terrence Malick used to take long hiatuses between his films, but the reclusive director has become quite prolific in the years since his 2011 magnum opus The Tree of Life, having released multiple films since then.

Since The Tree of Life at the start of this decade, the filmmaker went into overdrive, putting out the films To the Wonder, Knight of Cups and Song to Song, as well as two versions of his ambitious documentary passion project Voyage of Time, which offered a deep dive into the entire life cycle of the universe.

Now Malick returns once again with A Hidden Life, a World War II drama that is based on the true story of Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), a humble Austrian farmer who shares a quiet life tending to the land with his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner) and their daughters. With the war ravaging Europe, and Nazi ideology spreading to even those in the faith community, Franz undergoes military training but risks his life when he refuses to swear allegiance to Adolf Hitler, becoming a conscientious objector.

It’s fitting that Malick is closing out this decade of previously uncommon creative activity for himself with A Hidden Life, since it feels like a companion piece of sorts to The Tree of Life, at least from a spiritual sense. While A Hidden Life follows more of a traditional narrative than Malick’s other recent works, it’s still a film that is distinctly his, unfolding through sweeping scenes of characters existing in nature, matched by the director’s signature use of hushed, prayerful voiceover.

This is an approach that allows for reflection upon those who, in their own quiet ways, gave up everything to resist taking part in the evils of the world. Throughout the film, we watch as Jägerstätter is punished harshly and finally imprisoned for his peaceful acts of protest against Hitler’s fascist regime, and Diehl delivers a dedicated and moving performance as a man standing by his principles, even at the expense of his own life and wellbeing. Malick intends to help us realize this man’s largely unrecognized sacrifices and feel the full weight of them over the course of the film, and he has succeeded.

The film is filled with spectacular and haunting images courtesy of cinematographer Jörg Widmer, who steps up to the plate after working as a camera operator on several of Malick’s recent films. The visuals are matched beautifully by James Newton Howard’s musical score. While the film does feel a bit long at almost three hours, when some trimming might have brought elements of the story into sharper focus, A Hidden Life is a beautiful, poetic and spiritual work about standing firm in your beliefs. A must see for admirers of Malick.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

A Hidden Life is now playing in limited release at Cineplex Cinemas Varsity in Toronto.

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