REVIEW

Terrence Malick's A Hidden Life is a beautiful Terrence Malick film about a farmer in World War II

A Hidden Life (PG)

Four stars

Terrence Malick has made some of the most exquisite movies of the last 40 years, from Days of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line (1998) to The Tree of Life (2011) and Knight of Cups (2015).

With a distinctive approach to both style and theme, his recent films have been labelled "experimental" with the narrative hard to find.

A Hidden Life bucks this trend, with Malick fusing his whispering voice-overs, floating cinematography and visual obsessions with a story from real life about a conscientious objector in Nazi-occupied Austria.

It's a beautiful work, as much about the power of everyday minutiae as it is about the torments of standing up for your beliefs.

 A scene from A Hidden Life. Picture: Reiner Baio/20th Century Fox

A scene from A Hidden Life. Picture: Reiner Baio/20th Century Fox

Franz Jaggastatter (August Diehl) and his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) are farmers in a remote village community in the Austrian alps.

Life is simple and repetitive, with nature never far away as the couple immerse themselves in the daily routines of milking, sowing and gathering hay.

They live with their three children, Franz's mother and Fani's unmarried sister Resie (Maria Simon), and when war comes, Franz is called up for basic training where he befriends the energetic Waldlan (Franz Rogowski).

Once France falls and with German forces on the ascendency, Franz is sent back to his village and life resumes, the idyllic rhythm interrupted now by drunken rants from the local mayor who supports Adolf Hitler, and the occasional visit of the postman on a bicycle.

We sense it's only a matter of time before Franz will be called up again and, when it comes, he refuses to swear the necessary oath of allegiance to Hitler, an act of defiance that sets him and Fani against the system.

We watch and wonder as the church, military authorities and local villagers all struggle to understand why Franz would choose this difficult path.

Malick fans won't be surprised by the immersive approach to storytelling. We are not just witness to the beauty of Franz and Fani's life, but present in their world. This is thanks to the floating camerawork of cinematographer Jorg Widner (who's worked extensively with Malick), the soft voice-over from the characters (giving access to their innermost, existential concerns), and the constant visual references to the small, everyday objects that make up life.

There's an obvious beauty, too, in the mountain setting, with Malick making much of the light and the water that runs off the mountain to the fast-flowing river at the bed of the valley below.

A scene from A Hidden Life. Picture: Reiner Baio/20th Century Fox

A scene from A Hidden Life. Picture: Reiner Baio/20th Century Fox

Ultimately, Malick sets up Franz as an immovable moral object, and is less interested in him than in the reaction of others - and us - to him and his family. We watch as priests, army officers, friends and relatives struggle to understand why anyone would take a stand against a regime and a leader so powerful.

As the narrative plays out, Malick asks all of us to judge Franz: is he doing the right thing for himself, for his family, and for his country, however corrupt?

Hitler appears, too, by way of old film footage, including a clip taken from his mountain retreat, less than 100 kilometres up river from Franz's valley. We know his morality is immovable too, and the movement of the film derives from the polar positions of Nazi tyranny and individual conscience. In between, people suffer the best course they can steer and the light ebbs back and forth, revealing that only nature stands above the fight.

Diehl and Pachner create a gorgeous sense of the nature of love with their intimate portrayal of husband and wife, and the excellent supporting performances from all mean that there are no caricatures here - only complex, compromised souls searching for meaning in a time of madness. Look out for Bruno Ganz as the military judge who must finally decide Franz's fate: perhaps it's no coincidence that he is best known for playing Hitler in the Oscar-nominated Downfall (2004).

As the narrative plays out, Malick asks all of us to judge Franz: is he doing the right thing for himself, for his family, and for his country, however corrupt? And what would we do in his position - with our hidden lives that mean so little in the scheme of things?

As always, Malick connects the everyday to the big questions of Being, and it's a pleasure to be lost in this musing.

If you don't know Malick's work, be prepared for a cinematic treat: an emotional story presented as an immersive, quizzical and revelatory experience.

This story This is a beautiful, revelatory film first appeared on The Canberra Times.