Monday 20 May 2019

Cannes 2019 - A Hidden Life by Terrence Malick

A Hidden Life is a lose adaption of the life of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who refused to fight for the Nazis during WW2 and faced the threat of execution.

When Terrence Malick one of the most secretive and rare filmmakers, became one of the most prolific, there was much enthusiasm among cinephiles. Having delivered arguably some of best films of the last century with his first two, Badlands and Days of Heaven, he only returned to directing over twenty years later with the sumptuous, triumphant The Thin Red Line (1998). The New World followed in 2005 with much acclaim, then he began a new phase with the Palme d'or winning The Tree of Life (2011), quickly followed by To The Wonder (2012), Knights of Cup (2015), Voyage of Time (2016), Song to Song (2017)... except that, by then, the enthusiasm of a lot of his fans (but not all!) had dimmed.

He was criticised for diluting his talent and even becoming a caricature of himself, pushing his directing style to some radical limits of improvisation, obliqueness and whose aesthetic some uncharitably compared to a perfume advert, with some added pontification about our world.

His newest, A Hidden Life (which was called until recently as Radegund), was said to be a return to a more traditional type of filmmaking. Yet while the narration is more straight forward indeed, it is immediately striking how Terrence Malick's directing style still bears the marks of his more recent, experimental films with the light, fluid camera that flows around the cast and stay close to their face during some of the dialogue heavy scenes. This artistic decision actually benefits the film, bringing us so much closer to the characters while eschewing a certain style of static direction so prominent with period dramas. Whatever you might think of the director's recent efforts, it feels as if he wouldn't not have been able to achieve this balance with this film had he not burned himself going too far with his recent ones.

While Terrence Malick's majestic and elegiac visual style that served him so well with The Thin Red Line is also very much in evidence here, A Hidden Life is not just a beautiful yet empty and inaccessible piece of art. It is also a profound reflection on the nature of faith and humanity that never feels heavy-handed. "We live above the clouds" utters Franz to his wife Fani early on, in the beautiful surroundings of their alpine village, as if left untouched by the progressing evil of the world, as if living in a timeless garden of Eden.

Yet when it does catch up with them, rather than avoiding it, Franz chooses to face it head on. Why does he bother is a question his friends but even his enemies keep asking, when there is so little one man can do in these circumstances. A deeply religious man, Franz does not even find much spiritual guidance and solace with a priest. Yet he does not give up and risking everything for his moral principle while not set to gain anything either. "If God gives us free will, we are responsible for what we do" are some of his haunting words.

It might all sound a bit worthy yet this is where the skill of the director is all in evidence. He finds just the right distance with his lead, making it abundantly clear how his own family is set to suffer so much because of his action, not matter how supporting Fani is. A Hidden Life does not judge and invites us to make our own opinion about his actions.

With A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick is on top of his game, delivering a film that is the culmination of his artistic experimentations both from his early and most recent films.

Review by Laurent de Alberti

Star rating: 

Official Selection, In Competition.

A Hidden Life. Germany/USA 2019. Directed by Terrence Malick. Starring August Diehl, Valerie Pachner...

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