Terrence Malick's "A Hidden Life" resides above the clouds in a small Alpine hamlet.
Franz Jägerstätter lives there, in Austria, with his wife, Franziska, and their young daughters. They spend their days working and playing in the hillside fields, enraptured by their humble mountain idyll. The enormous peaks that surround them make a kind of open-air cathedral.
The Nazis don't arrive all at once. Hitler's rise at first seems very distant. (Malick opens the film and occasionally intersperses black-and-white archival footage.) But hateful, anti-immigrant Third Reich ideology begins to seep into the villagers. Angry words can be overheard in the town's square and, eventually, all are conscripted into the Nazi army. Jägerstätter (played by August Diehl) is the only one not willing to go along and pledge himself to Hitler.
"A Hidden Life" is based on a true story. Jägerstätter was a conscious objector during World War II whose little-known story has gradually risen in prominence in the decades since Pope Benedict XVI beatified him in 2007.
Across a running time of three hours, Malick renders Jägerstätter's noble protest with spiritual and photographic grandeur. The movie — glacial, searching and symphonic — is a hymn, or prayer, examining the nature of sacrifice. Jägerstätter's stand is not one grand moment fit for close-up with a swelling score, but countless refusals, hardships and indignities, all experienced with quaking pains of uncertainty. Will it even make any difference?
While more linear than the director's most recent films, Malick relies on his now familiar methods —some might say frustratingly prescribed habits — of beautiful, sky-gazing cinematography (Jörg Widmer provides the cinematography), inner-monologue musing and sometimes grating actorly improvisation. He tells the story principally with light. The movie feels as though it takes place less specifically in 1940s Austria than on some higher plane of spiritual quandary.
No one could doubt the sincerity of Malick's mission. He is deeply infused in Jägerstätter's story, chronicling the splendor of the life that he, when the authorities come for him, must cut himself off from in order to do what he believes right. Such a story feels bracingly contemporary and profoundly inspiring.
But it also feels like Malick's way of filmmaking gets in the way. Even on his recent, less popular movies ("Song to Song," "Knight of Cups"), it's been impossible to imagine them made by anyone else. But this time it's tempting to consider what a more precise director might have done with "A Hidden Life." Malick's movie is deeply open-hearted, metaphysical and ruminative. But it might have benefited from being brought down to Earth.
"A Hidden Life," a Fox Searchlight release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for thematic material including violent images. Running time: 174 minutes. Three stars out of four.Category: Features