Considering that a full 20 years had passed between Malick’s second film, 1978’s “Days of Heaven,” and his third effort, 1998’s “The Thin Red Line,” any project of his was bound the draw critical attention.
And “The Tree of Life” lived up to every expectation. I wrote at the time that this film was one of the most authentic stabs at cinematic art that I had ever seen. And I still hold that opinion.
I wish I could say the same for Malick’s most recent release, “A Hidden Life.” But Malick’s style, which began to gel with “Days of Heaven” and was used to great effect in “The Tree of Life” – even given the much-lampooned dinosaur sequences – doesn’t always fit the narratives he pursues. And it isn’t quite appropriate enough for the story he tries to tell in “A Hidden Life.”
That story, written by Malick, concerns a real-life Austrian farmer named Franz Jaggerstatter who when called up for military service in 1943 refused to fight and was ultimately condemned to death for sedition. Drawing on both on historical accounts and letters written between Jaggerstatter and his wife Franziska, Malick follows his protagonist from a time before World War II when he met and married Franziska to his final days in a German prison.
But like all of Malick’s later work, “A Hidden Life” doesn’t progress in a straightforward manner. Much of the dialogue is overdubbed, portrayed not so much in scenes where characters actually address one another but as meditative attempts to underscore the action to which Malick’s continually roving camera is attending.
So we have scenes of Franziska recalling the time she and Franz first met, his riding a motorcycle on back mountain roads, the moment their eyes first met at a village feast, their dancing with the kind of joyful burst that accompanies first love. And the effect is more of a dreamy reminiscence than anything resembling standard cinematic narration.
This isn’t necessarily bad, especially since Malick’s visual sense – realized through the work of cinematographer Jörg Widmer – is as strong as ever. It’s hard not to be impressed as Malick’s camera weaves between the mountains of northern Italy, over the wheat growing in the area’s farm fields and among the rugged buildings that house people whose lives are defined by the very work they put into those fields.
But Malik’s fascination with the visuals, beautiful though they are, tends to grow repetitive and gradually – over the film’s near-three-hour running time – gets in the way of his exploration of Jaggerstatter’s personal story and the very real emotions – of sacrifice, of conscience and of courage – that underscore it.
If only they’d had the chance to play actual living, breathing characters instead of being used more as mere visual representations.