American helmer Terrence Malick makes movies that come dangerously close to a three-hour run time, and his creations like The Thin Red Line and A Tree of Life can be abstract, confounding and confusing. But as much as Malick may be a viewer's nightmare, he can, at the same time, be a jury's delight. In 2011, he won the Palm dÓr for A Tree of Life. Nobody can deny he is enormously talented, but he is also frighteningly mystifying.
However, his latest title, A Hidden Life, which played as part of the Cannes 2019 Competition, has a less abstract narrative, though it leaves behind unanswered questions. Based on a true story, set during World War II, A Hidden Life talks about an Austrian man, married with children. But the man's often puzzling conscience takes him to the Nazi guillotine.
Running three hours, the film is gorgeous to look at, and DOP Jorg Widmer captures the Austrian landscape in its its lush splendour. The undulating lands, the imposing mountains and the lively streams add beauty to a story whose climax is all but predictable. But, yes, I am sure there must have been some in the audience who would have wished for a happier end.
Shot in northern Austria, which may not be far from where the classic, The Sound of Music, was filmed, A Hidden Life begins with a black-and-white footage of Hitler's rise and his arrogant invasions. Later, it settles down to a more personal format.
Franz Jagerstatter (August Diehl) and his wife, Franziska (Valerie Pachner), have a farm. But after the German takeover, Franz is called for military duty, and he goes just like everybody else. But when he is called upon to swear his allegiance to Hitler, he flat refuses. Warned by his local priest not to get into this kind of defiant mode (“Your sacrifice will benefit no one”), Franz remains steadfast in his commitment to his conscience.
A Hidden Life has its problems. It seems highly incredible that a man like Franz, who loves his wife and brood of daughters, would put his own life in peril, knowing full well that defying the Fuhrer could mean death. Malick never explains the reasons for Franz's stand. At best, they seem fuzzy, and he is never allowed to explain to his family the reason for his dogged pursuit -- opposing Hitler. We are left in the dark why the man internalises his struggle, and often the movie begins to look like a silent work.
With 173 minutes at hand, Malick could have offered a more convincing view Franz's life. He was certainly not interested in being a martyr. He adored his family. But did his love and loyalty for Austria overshadow his responsibility towards his mother, wife and children? Malick never tells us.
(Author, commentator and movie critic Gautaman Bhaskaran has covered Cannes close to three decades)