Jonathan White’s review published on Letterboxd:
TIFF 2019 film# 16
Is it telling that I forgot to both log and review A Hidden Life from this years batch at TIFF? Only after I published my ranked TIFF 2019 list did my long time LB buddy PeterS ping’d me saying ‘But wait, you didn’t include A Hidden Life’.
It was a 9am show on our last day at the fest after a week full of carousing with New Yorkers, Norwegians, and Kiwis as well as the usual Canadian suspects. Not the ideal slot to watch Malicks longest film to date. After the show, instead of making notes and logging … I went down for a nap. That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.
If asked for a general description by another Malick fan, I’d have to demure to PeterS’s description to Lise and me after he saw it … it’s rather a cross between The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life with the constructs of the former and the big questions of the latter … except on a much more limited budget.
Like his early work, budget constraints don’t affect the stunning visuals. Shot in a small village in Northern Italy, ( standing in for St. Radegund, which is too modern these days to play itself ) surrounded by the Alps, the vistas are stunning. Not every shot is ‘magic hour’, although every shot, including interiors, are naturally lit. Here, like every Malick film to an extent, but Days of Heaven in Particular, the location and visuals are a character themselves. The simple farming life is hard, but the rewards of living in paradise more than compensate. What I find particularly interesting here is that this is the first Malick film in a long while where he didn’t employ the services of genius DP Emmanuel Lubezki or Production Designer Jack Fisk. I haven’t been able to find any reason for this, but it does prove that what you see on the screen comes from Malick himself, just like Wong Kar-wai.
Malick has always used voiceovers as a tool, and by now a trademark. In his more recent films, less generous critics have said that this technique has become a parody of itself. Here, Malick pulls the reins in, and returns to how he used it in his early films. In fact, I think the voiceovers in A Hidden Life bear more of a similarity to those in Days of Heaven than even The Thin Red Line. While he still uses them to ask questions, they’re primarily used to advance the plot with what can best be described as ‘remembrances’. Much of the third act the voiceovers are used to communicate the content of letters, almost exclusively carrying the narrative during this final phase.
A clever technique Malick utilized was language. From what I’ve read, the Austrian German dialect is significantly different from proper German, enough that those born and raised in a small northern Austrian village could have difficulty understanding proper German. In the film, all of the dialogue in St. Radegund between our principal characters is in English, but dialoge with German officers, and in those shot in Germany are spoken in German without subtitles, isolating the viewer the same way our protagonist is. ( again, a shout out to my buddy Peter for confirming all this stuff while I was writing this, as it was 9am and I was pretty foggy )
Was my forgetting to log or review this telling? No. It’s another Malick masterpiece.
A Hidden Life is really the story of Paradise Lost. Life was ideal for farmer Franz Jägerstätter, his family, and his neighbours in their idyllic village until the cold winds of nationalism and hate swept the countryside. Malick began the film over four years ago, but it looks like a critique of the events of today. Now, more than ever, we need people like Franz Jägerstätter.