A Hidden Life ★★★★★

George Eliot wrote that "the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs." When this quote appears as the final line of A Hidden Life, it drops like a bomb. It functions as a hermeneutical key given only at the last possible moment, causing us to re-evaluate everything that has come before. This motion of return, of remembrance, of retrieval, is the act Malick himself has performed in making the film, and which he would have us do in today’s lost and hopeless world. We need a saint. We need hagiography, which as one reviewer pointed out is literally the appropriate term since Franz Jägerstätter was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007. To return, to remember, to retrieve, these actions draw us out of the stupor of current events and into a historical consciousness that can speak to today.

Another reviewer called A Hidden Life "Feature or Bug: The Film." This is true. Every single artistic decision can be criticized. At the end of the day, most of these critiques amount to "this movie made decisions that are not normal and therefore not safe." If it wasn't already abundantly clear, Malick does not care about what makes films normal or safe. He is more motivated by a shot's effect on the viewer than its meaning in a static, objective sense as it occurs on the screen. His style is impressionistic, and he does impressionism like nobody else, with the exception of his copycats to an inferior degree.

A Hidden Life is so visual that it could have been a silent film and still worked. The dialogue is almost never essential. For Malick, dialogue is an added bonus that comes in later after the film has been successfully made, in the form of voiceovers, or paradigmatic discussions between Franz and key figures: the mayor (Ethno-Nationalism), the painter (who represents Malick), the judge (Pilate). However, not all paradigmatic scenes have dialogue. The man in the woods, seen first by Franz, then by Fani at an absolutely crucial moment in the narrative, serves as a foil against Franz's decision to remain within the system and face his consequences.

The pace is slow, but unlike some of his other works (Thin Red Line and To the Wonder, in particular), A Hidden Life has an emotional richness that inherently holds back the pace. If you choose to dial into the film, if you choose to not let the annoyed inner critic distract you from the vivid passion on display, you will not notice the time. This film is a timewarp. You have absolutely no sense of how long it has gone or how much remains. This is good. This is intended.

Most importantly of all — I haven't mentioned the phenomenal acting-direction or the cinematography, both of which stunned me and strike me as grounds for Oscars which inevitably Malick will not win — A Hidden Life means something, right here, right now. It couldn't have hit me at a more apt time, as Trump has initiated a horrific spiral of destabilization in the Middle East that threatens to engulf everyone and everything into another decade of meaningless war. Even before this week's developments, i.e., considering only what Malick knew when writing and directing this film, there is a theological crisis at work in the church that threatens to destroy its credibility and its witness to the crucified Messiah. The painter paints "comfortable Christs" for the people who want an image of Jesus untangled, unmarred, unscarred, nowhere near the cross. Or the guillotine. The entanglement of Christian witness with an evil political machine calls for resistance, calls us to return to the sources of faith, remember those who lived out that faith, and retrieve their courage for our own hidden lives of quiet obedience in an age where unspeakable horror feels more imminent than Messiah himself. A Hidden Life means something in itself, and it does that will the fullest artistic excellence film can provide as a medium, but it also crosses the boundary into our world. It exegetes and applies itself. (For this reason I was not concerned by the lack of references to the Holocaust or other Jewish suffering. The film had to omit reference to any specific evil in order to be its own parable for today).

A Hidden Life ranks among the greatest films I have ever seen. Easily the best of 2019, though thanks to Disney bombing the distribution it has become a hidden film to most audiences. As my friend Travis said, "Cut em some slack, it's a hard gig being the absolute worst." While it is a criminal shame that this has happened, I hope the vision and theo-political critique of this film travels far to change many. I have very rarely felt changed by a movie. I did this time.

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