Telluride Film Review: ‘A Hidden Life’ Begrudgingly Brings Malick Back

Valerie Pachner and August Diehl in the film A HIDDEN LIFE. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

2019 TELLURIDE FILM FESTIVAL: Terrence Malick has been a director that has been experimenting not just with his own filmmaking abilities, but cinema as a whole, with unconventional storytelling manners that have divided audiences and critics alike.  His earlier work with “Badlands,” “Days of Heaven,” and his Oscar-nominated “The Thin Red Line” found admirers and respect.  “To the Wonder,” “Knight of Cups,” “Song to Song,” and even his other Oscar-nominated work “The Tree of Life” have left many cold and wanting more.

His newest venture into meditation “A Hidden Life,” his probably the most “traditional” version we’re likely to see of him at this point.  With a bloated runtime of 3 hours, the film is equally both insightful and frustrating.  Not just in its length, but in the time Malick chooses to spend in the development of these characters. The film does, however, deliver two extraordinary lead performances and a sonorous musical composition that can be packed away in your cinematic mind.

“A Hidden Life,” tells the true story of Austrian Blessed Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), a conscientious objector who refuses to fight for the Nazis during World War II.  With his loving wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner), the two deal with the ramifications of standing up for their beliefs that will have a lasting impact.

When mounting the items on an “impediment list,” you’ll likely find the amount of time a viewer spends on this film at the top of every ranking.   What’s most disappointing about that fact is the first hour can be left on the cutting room floor, and you would be left with an undeniably moving and ravishing display of filmmaking and storytelling.  The first hour encompasses all of Malick’s newly formed obsessions with long shots of nature, people walking, and random, middle-of-a-script-line insertions.  Once graduated from that indulgence, Malick chooses to tell a story, and it is one that is gripping, and likely one of the great unknown stories of history.

August Diehl‘s vivacious portrayal of Franz is an examination of the human spirit that hasn’t been in some time.  Showcasing with little more than his eyes, he’s able to display self-reflection and questions about his existence and choices in every frame he’s given.  He follows his conscience of acting, jolting through the wicked time era, and landing among the lost radicals that have surrounded his country. What the film achieves significantly, with much credit to Diehl’s work, is it answers this question that people tend to use in this hot, political climate: what would you do during the time of Hitler? Or what would you do in the time of slavery?

The safe, thrown-about answer for many is, “I would stand up and do something” and yet, in this divided climate in American politics, where racism and hatred are as prevalent as it’s ever been, individuals are doing nothing. Franz was one of few, and admittedly a man that this reviewer didn’t know before seeing the film, who stood up for his soul to a wicked ideology.  He’s isn’t declared a hero or saint by evangelicals who fight for his name or status to be honored.  He’s a martyr for one of the greatest sins of humanity, and no one cares.  That’s what Malick’s film ultimately offers, and it’s superbly real.

Pachner’s work as his loving wife left to endure the scrutiny and shame of her husband’s beliefs and choices is heartbreaking and utterly splendid. We also witness to the last on-screen work of the late Bruno Ganz, who is offered a proper note for cinema-goers to relish and honor for all-time.  There’s also much wonder and beauty in the work of Maria Simon, as Resie, Franziska’s sister that stands out immensely.

As can be expected, the visualization of character movements and capture are dynamic and poetic thanks to the camera work by Jörg Widmer.  That partnered with a magically sonorous composition by eight-time Oscar-nominee James Newton Howard, who puts forth his best work since “Nightcrawler.”

A Hidden Life” could have been a masterpiece.  It could have been accessible to audiences who are generally not on board with this version of storytelling.  It’s bitterly experienced as in many ways this is a return-to-form from the ingenious filmmaker, but with a begrudging fact to not shed some of the bad habits he’s picked up.  Perhaps this is Malick’s rehabilitation and a step in the right direction.

“A Hidden Life” is distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures and opens in theaters on Dec. 13.

GRADE: (★★½)

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