A Hidden Life (4 stars)

A Hidden Life

Cannes 2019: Terrence Malick brings a timely urgency to the true story of a conscientious objector

'The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.' The famous assertion, most commonly attributed to Edmund Burke, couldn't be more apt when considering Terrence Malick's latest. Set between 1939 and 1943 and based on true events, A Hidden Life tells the story of Franz Jägerstätter (played here by August Diehl), an Austrian conscientious objector, who refused to serve the Nazi regime and paid the ultimate price.

Billed as a return to more conventional storytelling for Malick, A Hidden Life has the emotional scope and poetic sensibility of an oratorio as it commemorates the anguished defiance of an ordinary man. There are echoes of Malick's Days of Heaven as he depicts Franz as a hard-working, goodhearted farmer who loves his wife Frani (Valerie Pachner) and their children. His life in a small rural community through the changing seasons seems idyllic. Cinematographer Jörg Widmer captures majestic images of tumbling waterfalls, cornfields swaying in the sunlight and lofty mountain peaks with a halo of clouds. It is a paradise on earth.

The rise of the Nazis warps individual personalities and poisons the well of community spirit. Franz refuses to sign an oath of loyalty to Hitler and cannot fathom why others do not recognise what is happening in their midst. Incarceration and prolonged abuse transform him into a Christ-like martyr, prepared to sacrifice himself for the sins of the world.

Running close to three-hours, A Hidden Life is a draining, exhausting experience punctuated by black and white newsreel footage, letters and extensive narration that give voice to inner torments and loving feelings. It has the intensity of a Carl Dreyer silent film but also a timely urgency, as Malick asks us to consider how one individual can hope to make a difference in a world at the mercy of the evil that men do.

Screening as part of the Cannes Film Festival 2019. General release TBC.

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