Terrence Malick has made more films this decade than he has any other time during his forty plus year career. The reclusive writer/director seemed to realize that he had a lot to say in his later years and the usual decade long gaps between his films seemed to come down to practically a film every other year. It was like the comic book movie craze of having so many each year affected Malick’s output and gave him a desire to work faster. He started the decade with the spiritual and visionary Tree of Life (2011) which has appeared on numerous best of the decade lists. While most of his other films from this decade are appreciated by his fans or discarded as lesser works from a pretentious Kubrick-like filmmaker, his newest picture A Hidden Life is without a doubt one of his best. He closes the decade with an exclamation point about mankind facing the ultimate human evil. All of his films deal with man’s inability to control nature, but this one is as much about man’s inability to control human nature as evil takes over a farming community and becomes normalized. A Hidden Life may not be on my Best of the Decade list, but it will be on my Best Movies of the Year list.
It opens up with a black screen and some narration about “building our nest high up”, then it shows actual World War II footage and soon enough we see Adolf Hitler triumphantly parading through streets. The black and white footage cuts abruptly to a gorgeous mountain-scape of Austria with some of the brightest green grass and bluest skies behind majestic mountains one could ever wish to see on film. Most Terrence Malick films contain elegant cinematography and A Hidden Life is no exception. This film is a beauty to behold, every frame could be placed on a wall as a work of art. The images are accompanied and complimented by a touching score from James Newtown Howard. A Hidden Life is the story of an Austrian farmer who refuses to fight for, support, or even salute the Nazis when they take over his country during World War II. Despite the fact that he is aware of the dire consequences this could have on his life and his families, he stands by his convictions and is unyielding with his disdain for Hitler and the evil he stands for. A courageous and stubborn act most would have given in. There is so much to A Hidden Life with deep themes about his romance with his wife and his spiritual journey to conscientiously object for love and peace against the greatest evil of the twentieth century.
This is not the first time Terrence Malick has made a movie about the horrors of World War II. Twenty-one years ago, after a twenty year absence from his previous picture, he released The Thin Red Line (1998) which was a combat movie about US troops fighting the Japanese during the battle of Guadalcanal. From that description you can tell this is as different of a World War II movie as he could have possibly made but they are strikingly similar thematically. A Hidden Life works admirably well as a companion piece to The Thin Red Line. Both films involve man trying to tame nature with diminishing results. Both films use vibrant colors in nature to convey spectacular beauty and violent conflict. More gray skies, shadows, and darker colors appear in A Hidden Life as the war rages on and moves closer to the main characters home. Eventually he and his family are ostracized by their village for their anti-war stance. Both films involve religious imagery and how God could allow such evil and senseless violence to take place. A Hidden Life tackles religion in a different way as the hero seeks counsel from religious leaders only to find that they too have been corrupted by the war. The final shot involves looking up to the sky as heaven above us.
Depending on what the viewer brings to the film, and how they interpret Terrence Malick’s earlier films could determine how much they enjoy A Hidden Life. His films at their strongest work as an existential or religious experience on the screen, and A Hidden Life is one of his finest pictures. It does go on too long in the middle and the three hour run time could have been cut down a bit in some parts, but those are minor quibbles from an otherwise grand opus. This is a stunningly powerful allegory about how war tears a family, and a town, and on a deeper level a nation and our world apart, and that sometimes the best and bravest acts of courage are the ones that go unseen.
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