A Hidden Life (2019)

“To lower oneself is to rise in the domain of moral gravity. Moral gravity makes us fall toward the heights.” –Simone Weil

Terrence Malick’s breathtaking new film, A Hidden Life, traces the later years of Austrian peasant farmer and devout Catholic, Franz Jägerstätter. In 1943, when the Austrian army called Franz from his village of St. Radegund to serve in the German war effort, Franz refused on the grounds that he could not swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler. This led, eventually, to his imprisonment and execution. Franz’s wife, Fani, also suffered in numerous ways—the loss of her husband and the father of her children, the scorn of most of her neighbors, and the questions and doubts that encroached upon her faith.

One of the most surprising and gratifying moves Malick makes with this “hagiography” is the strong and virtually equal presence of Fani in what has ostensibly been framed by many as Franz’s story. Where a lesser filmmaker may have been tempted to place the focus solely on Franz (who has been beatified by the Roman Catholic Church), Malick understands that one cannot properly understand the nature of Franz’s sacrifice without also seeing the equally significant sacrifice of Fani. The mark she leaves on the film is so strong that I even wondered whether she, rather than Franz, was the hidden life referred to in the film’s title (a striking reference to the conclusion of George Eliot’s magnificent Middlemarch). Of the two, she remains the one most hidden to the rest of the world, but her story of persevering faith in the midst of profound trials stands every bit as tall as Franz’s.*

Given the strong marital relationship at the center of this film, along with the dual paths of suffering that Franz and Fani follow, I am tempted to suggest an alternative title in the spirit of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s masterful The Passion of Joan of Arc: ‘The Passions of Franz and Fani of Radegund.’

An early scene that takes place in the village church portrays a conversation between Franz and an artist restoring some of the building’s artwork. Their conversation turns to the act of painting Christ, a task the artist frankly admits is beyond his capability. He believes he is too comfortable to truly understand (and therefore reflect) anything like the reality of Christ in his art. The whole scene comes across as something of a commentary on the film (and a call out to his next one, reportedly a rendering of the Jesus story?), as Malick portrays two distinct but linked passion narratives, reaching for the truth in the midst of the sacrifice.

This dual suffering of Franz and Fani is where the film cuts most deeply. On the one hand, Franz’s narrative portrays a man who, though he struggles at times, has pointed himself toward righteousness and means to carry that out, no matter the cost. Fani, on the other hand, is much more expressive in her struggle, her words often directly questioning God, even as she quotes Scripture. Her rendering of the simple tasks and events of her life take on a questioning character—simple joys of presence with her daughters or the blessing of a harvest become weighty trials in the wake of Franz’s absence. The film’s honesty about the realities of evil amidst and within the life of faith, that the follower of Jesus should expect suffering to follow, is probably its most poignant contribution.

I began this piece with a citation from Simone Weil. Franz and Fani lower themselves, resisting the temptation to dwell in a compromised safety even if there are some really good, non-Hitler-y reasons to take that road. But in that lowering, they attain a moral (and spiritual) gravity. As they persevere in their profoundly Christian responses to evil, they fall toward the heights.

* That the film includes a dedication to Malick’s wife, Alexandra, only strengthens this impression for me. I would also point out that Malick does here something very similar to what he did in To the Wonder, which we might now call his “other marriage movie.” In that 2012 effort, Malick turns his attention almost exclusively upon the women of the story—a wife and a mistress—leaving the husband/boyfriend character played by Ben Affleck virtually silent by comparison.

Top Films of 2011

With the Oscars signifying the end of the awards season, I’m taking the opportunity to write up my favorite films from 2011. The year has seen the release of a number of remarkable films, noted by the fact that I have had no troubles whatsoever filling out a top ten. Still, with many yet left to see, the following represent my favorites at the moment:

10. Pearl Jam Twenty: A highly personal pick to be sure, but one for which I feel great enthusiasm. Experienced director and unabashed fan Cameron Crowe offers up a history of the band laced with live performances, found footage, and interviews. The film’s opening sequence detailing the tragic end of Andy Wood brings heartfelt context to the band’s sometimes criticized earnestness. This is, admittedly, a documentary with little illumination of the darkest corners of Pearl Jam’s history. But the heart, the peace, and the connectedness of the band offer an intriguing counterpoint to their music.

9. Bill Cunningham New York: Bill Cunningham, a fashion photographer for the New York Times, is an inspiring individual. His simple joy for life, his consistent kindness to those he meets, his unending interest in others, and his absolute embrace of beauty wherever he finds it make him one of the rarest of people: a genuine human being. And when the interviewer asks Bill about his regular church attendance? A beautiful moment that simply has to be seen. I wrote more extensively about the film here.

8. Meek’s Cutoff: Reichardt’s humanist vision for America—or really, the world—set amid a 19th century Oregon wagon train makes excellent use of its well-rounded characters and compelling, real-world story. While Reichardt focuses on the simple, everyday lives of the settlers, the film slowly evolves into something much more complex and layered, a horrific vision of a people without direction and their mechanisms for trust badly in need of repair. And as Reichardt obviously allows her camera to favor the female characters in this male dominated world, the film stands apart as a unique testament to the ills and sufferings of a world badly in need of vision. I wrote more extensively about the film here.

7. A Separation: A complex, psychological portrait of not just a couple, but a family, a community, and dare I say, an entire society. What begins as a simple disjunction between a married couple continues to grow and manifest itself in ever larger networks of people, involving children, neighbors, employees, community officials, and even the justice system. The acting is exceptional, none more so than the young lady playing the daughter, while the opening and closing shots express at once the beauty and the tragedy of life in Iran.

6. Nostalgia for the Light: An extraordinary essay film less interested in facts and more interested in ideas, atmosphere, and the experience of life. The film deals in a central paradox: How can a place be at once so well-suited for examining the past (in the heavens and on earth), and yet be located in a country unwilling to deal with its own more recent, and tragic, past. Guzman’s photography is exquisite. As one shot blends into the next through creative editing, the film’s underlying humanism stands out all the more. I wrote more extensively about the film here.

5. Of Gods and Men: Love endures. This is a film about a group of men on a mission to love people as best they can, to be neighborly, to give of themselves however they can for the betterment of others. This is a physical and social task, but these men reveal that it is also a spiritual task, one deeply connected with who human beings are and ought to be. The quiet rhythms of the film mimic those same rhythms of monastery life, including sequences of profound goodness & beauty and a Christian ethic made tangible.

4. Tuesday, After Christmas: Muntean’s achingly restrained film illustrates the beauty of marriage by helping the audience to feel real loss when a marriage fails. Using lengthy shots filled with subtext, the film builds tension as the philandering husband nears, and eventually makes, his fateful decision. The key scene is an 11+ minute shot chronicling the aftermath of his choice, along with a wonderfully complex, expertly-acted, and heartbreaking final sequence. I wrote more extensively about the film here.

3. The Tree of Life: More ambitious than Malick’s other features, The Tree of Life brings a cosmic perspective to profound tragedy through the lens of a struggling man’s memories. The first hour of the film, up through and including the creation imagery, succeeds beautifully. As the film refocuses on the family for the final hour plus, it becomes more diffuse as the boy’s relationship with his family fractures. The search for peace, meaning, and beauty comes only in a proper rendering of the past–our own and that of the world.

2. Poetry: A beautifully shot and rendered film, Poetry encapsulates empathy for the other, the joy and the pain involved in truly seeing, and the continued–and maybe even increased–necessity for poetry in the modern world. Yun Jeong-hee’s performance is touching, nuanced, inspiring, and devastating. The film slowly builds to a narrative and emotional crescendo that prompts reflection long after the film ends.

1. Certified Copy: A magnificent achievement from Kiarostami both in writing and direction, as well as a stand out performance from Binoche, who is more compelling than ever. The camera’s gaze slowly humanizes these people, as they grow at once both more concrete and more cryptic. Each successive moment reveals and conceals. As the film drives toward its enigmatic conclusion, the film’s themes become ever clearer: the relationship between truth and fiction, the vulnerability associated with an openness to the other, and the mystery of matrimony.

The Best of the Rest

  • All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (dir. Adam Curtis): A dizzying document of the way our understanding of machines and technology is changing our conception of humanity.
  • Buck (dir. Cindy Meehl): The film documents the life of a serene horse whisperer, a man who knows tragedy and has come out better on the other side of it.
  • In a Better World (dir. Susanne Bier): Bier has a gift for drawing out and dialing up tension in quiet and unobtrusive ways, which she does beautifully here in a film which divides the setting between Europe and Africa to compare and contrast approaches to vengeance.
  • Le Quattro Volte (dir. Michelangelo Frammartino): A series of four movements following the life of a shepherd, a goat, a tree, and charcoal, the film immerses the viewer in creation. Even without the aid of words, Frammartino provides a strong sense of connection to his subject matter.
  • Midnight in Paris (dir. Woody Allen): The scenes set in the 1920s were full of energy, life, and well-rounded characters. If Woody had done the same with the contemporary scenes, this would have easily made the first ten.
  • Mysteries of Lisbon (dir. Raoul Ruiz): Ruiz captures light in ways rarely seen in the cinema, adding a layer of beauty to this exquisitely costumed, sublimely written, visual feast for the senses. The priest stands as one of the most quietly compelling creations in recent years. The story, though it spreads out over wide swaths of time and geography, never lets up, while the constantly shifting perspectives invite us to explore the potential and the limits of narrative.

Harmless Entertainments: A Better Life; Cars 2; Page One: Inside the New York Times; Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows; The Way Back

Frustrating: Contagion; Take Shelter

Still to See: The Arbor; Aurora; Being Elmo; Boxing Gym; Brighton Rock; Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop; House of Tolerance; Hugo; The Ides of March; Into the Abyss; Margaret; Martha Marcy May Marlene; Moneyball; Mother; My Joy; Norwegian Wood; Our Beloved Month of August; The Swell Season; Tabloid; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Trip; Tyranosaur; Uncle Boonmee; United Red Army; The Way; Win Win

Six Outstanding Discoveries from Years Past:

  • Lucky Life (dir. Lee Isaac Chung): Taking its inspiration from the poetry of Gerald Stern, the film offers a sensitivity to the way pain and memory ripple through life. Chung edits the film intuitively, making connections that inspire reflection rather than determine meaning. And what a final shot.
  • Secret Sunshine (dir. Lee Chang-dong): A remarkable film about a woman’s journey from isolation and abstraction to a more connected and human existence. Its nuanced portrait of Evangelical Christians brings something unique to cinema. I wrote more extensively about the film here.
  • Night of the Demon (dir. Jacques Tourneur): Terrific horror that focuses on the subtle psychological transformation taking place in the lead character.
  • Los Angeles Plays Itself (dir. Thom Anderson): An engaging and engrossing essay film on the presentation and identity of Los Angeles.
  • Happy Here and Now (dir. Michael Almereyda): An atmospheric film from New Orleans that explores the loss of identity we experience as technology encroaches, even to the point of mediating our relationships for us.
  • Another Year (dir. Mike Leigh): Magnificent film from Leigh, attempting and succeeding at one of the most difficult tasks for a filmmaker and storyteller: presenting a believable and compelling vision of goodness—in this case, through marriage.

The Thin Red Line (1998)

Just caught this for a second time, and there are so many things to talk about in such a beautiful and complex film. However, it struck me this time what an incredible meditation this is on the beauty of the divine seen in and through the world. And while many would want to see the beauty in the gorgeous landscapes that Malick paints with his camera, what is most striking to me about the film is how it forces us to consider the witness of the horrors of war to the same glorious divine. After all the suffering, killing, and blood-curdling screaming, the men leave the island. And as they look back on it, in the distance, we hear the final narration: “Oh, my soul, let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes, look out at the things you’ve made. All things shining.”

The things that have been made by their creator, they shine. And what we see in this film, it seems to me, is the tension created when one witnesses that shining in all things, even in the most dire of circumstances. To me, that film portrays a disturbing truth about reality, and maybe even about God: that even in the midst of terrible evils, the creation (including humanity) shines, it reflects his glory – even as we kill and maim our fellow man. But how can we see glory in something as painful and disturbing as war? This gets to the heart of what might be the greatest problem for humans in all of history to deal with – the problem of evil. As portrayed in this film, evil is definitely evil, but the glory shines through it as well. A line by Witt (Jim Caviezel) earlier in the film states this more clearly: “One man looks at a dying bird and thinks there’s nothing but unanswered pain. That death’s got the final word, it’s laughing at him. Another man sees that same bird, feels the glory, feels something smiling through it.”

Whenever I reflect on these topics, I return to a quotation by C.S. Lewis, in A Grief Observed, which is a series of journal entries around the time his wife, Joy, succumbed to cancer. His words express my own middling position on all this. He says: “Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God is really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’”