Most of the famous religious-themed Hollywood movies – from “The Ten Commandments” to “The Greatest Story Ever Told” – are biblical epics functioning as star-studded illustrated guidebooks to sacred texts. Writer-director Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life” is the antithesis of those epics. It’s an attempt to make the movie itself function as a religious experience.
It’s about Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), a peasant farmer and devout Roman Catholic in the Alpine-ringed Austrian village of St. Radegund who refuses to swear an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler and ultimately is executed. (He was beatified by the Vatican in 2007.) His wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner), is torn by his stance but stands by him. Their three little daughters are kept in the dark. The villagers, branding him a traitor, turn against the family.
Malick does not dismiss lightly the philosophical arguments encouraging Franz to relent and sign the oath. (Says one sympathizer: “God doesn’t care what you say, only what is in your heart.”) Ultimately it is Fani’s father who speaks for the filmmaker: “Better to suffer injustice than to do it.”
Despite its faults – a glacial three-hour running time and Malick’s overuse of oracular voice-overs to express his characters’ inner thoughts – the film does indeed succeed in being a species of religious experience. It has a powerful sense of the immanence of life. Franz’s stance is a deeply moral one, but his morality is based on his religious precepts. This is what differentiates “A Hidden Life” from so many Hollywood movies where people, without any religious underpinning, fight for what is right.
For reasons I suspect are more commercial than doctrinal, Hollywood has never been conducive to explicitly religious movies. Malick, who is currently shooting a movie about Jesus, is so far out of the studio mainstream that he essentially operates on his own recognizance. There have been few other recent Hollywood movies attempting anything similar to “A Hidden Life.” Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed” starred Ethan Hawke as a parish pastor beset by personal demons; its tortuous examination of the sacred and the profane leaned a bit too heavily on the profane.
“Silence,” set in the 17th century and directed by Martin Scorsese, was about two Portuguese Jesuit priests who venture into Japan, where Christianity was forbidden, in search of the mentor who has reportedly renounced his faith. A long-held passion project, it was a movie that ultimately seemed to mean more to its director than to its audience. Mel Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge,” about a Seventh-day Adventist who becomes a World War II hero despite being a pacifist battlefield medic, exhibited Gibson’s usual penchant for bloodlust posing as religiosity. The enjoyable “The Two Popes” is less a religious movie than a high-toned buddy picture: Cardinal Bergoglio and Pope Benedict bond over ABBA and soccer games.
It’s not surprising that the most powerful religious-themed movies have come from outside Hollywood. Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928), a total submersion into the ecstasies and agonies of faith, is the greatest of them all. (Dreyer didn’t live to direct his script about Jesus.)
A close second is Robert Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest” (1951), about an outcast priest in rural France. More recently is Xavier Beauvois’ “Of Gods and Men” (2010), about Trappist monks in largely Muslim Algeria whose moral imperative to preserve their beliefs means almost certain death at the hands of terrorists.
“A Hidden Life” doesn’t rise to the level of these movies, but it shares with them a reverence for the sanctity of Scripture, which, in the film’s terms, is synonymous with the sanctity of life. It does justice to the George Eliot quote from “Middlemarch” in the end credits: “For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”