Tuesday, December 10, 2019

For the Beauty of the Earth: A HIDDEN LIFE

"Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin." James 4:17
From Terrence Malick, among the most earnest and spiritual of all filmmakers, comes A Hidden Life, a story of how difficult it can be to live a moral life in extreme times. How timely, and how timeless. In its persuasive, all-enveloping, overwhelming style, it’s a story of how small one person’s struggles can be against the enormity of nature’s landscapes, and the apocalyptic stakes of global conflict. And yet, one person’s struggles are enormous, a massive interior space with a thousand interconnected emotional tendrils tying him to his family, his community, his country, and his world. What is done to the least, is done to all. Malick’s interest in the interconnectedness of one another and to larger spiritual sensitivities, so beautifully explored in the expansive Tree of Life and the interior To the Wonder, is here aligned with a historical narrative that adds a dread trajectory, a sense of dark doom chugging like a distant locomotive underneath the pastoral beauty. It takes place in Austria during World War II. A farmer (August Diehl) and his wife (Valerie Pachner) live a simple life planting, harvesting, doing household chores, looking after his elderly widowed mother, and raising three adorable daughters. And yet, what has happened to their country? Their fellow citizens are enthralled to a bigoted strongman who goads violence against minorities and uses bellicose invasive rhetoric against their foreign neighbors, who cages those he deems unwanted, and threatens to crush any dissenters, as a lack of deference paid to this ruler makes one a traitor. It is probably inevitable that this peaceful farmer will be called to the front, and forced to pledge allegiance to Hitler to do so. Failure will mean imprisonment, torture, death. He prays. He talks to his wife. He consults his priest. And yet, when the time comes, only he can decide how deeply held his beliefs really are. The movie builds an accumulation of detail, piling up Malick’s attention to casual poetry of everyday life: a small dazzle of light on the ground, the soft soothing wind through the grass, the gentle play of a child, or the comfort of a ritual. We feel all too acutely what the evil of the world evokes to protect, even as it erodes and destroys.

Malick, pushing his discursive, intuitive editing and sensitive, wandering camera into emotive abstraction of late — Song to Song and Knight of Cups, his circuitous stories of romance and mental anguish against semi-autobiographical showbiz backdrops, are perhaps the loosest and most hypnotic films on the bounds of mainstream cinema in recent memory, at once empathetic and abstruse — here weds his style to a narrative with a stations-of-the-cross rehearsal of one man’s stubborn refusal to swear loyalty to a cause he rightly views as evil. In the early going, Joerg Widmer’s crystal-sharp scope cinematography finds enormous natural beauty dwarfing the farm, threatening to swallow up their village with overwhelming beauty. How can there be danger in a place so close to nature, so close to God, the mountains stretching high until fog and clouds are one, vast verdant fields and flowing hilly pastures canting at steep angles offset by the tilting camera. Everything is at peace, but as virulently patriotic villagers stormily invade the spaces of the farmer and his wife — skulking at the edges of frames or sauntering up drunk on prejudice and wagging index fingers — it’s clear the toxic influence of the Nazi propaganda is awakening ugliness that’ll be hard to contain or reverse. The masks are off, the farmer murmurs in one line of Malickian voice overs that run, per his custom, in spare, direct, moving monologues used as lyrical counterpoints and underpinnings to the gorgeous montages cut cleanly and evocatively in his typically poetic rhythms. As the film’s arc pushes the farmer into smaller boxes, backing him into political corners that become prisons figurative and literal, he holds fast to his deep moral belief that to assist the Nazis, no matter how trivially or even to simply save his own life, is to become one. No amount of hectoring from neighbors or pleading from elders or punishments from government officials can change his mind. It’s a tragedy about the toll goodness can take; it dares to look at the damage doing the right thing can inflict upon a person, upon a family, when everyone around is succumbing to the wrong things simply because it’s easier to go along to get along. It’s one thing to know there’s a deep evil stirring in your countrymen; it’s another entirely to risk everything to resist being a passive witness to it. One small personal act of resistance will not change the grand scheme of things. But what if the greater cost is to do nothing?

No comments:

Post a Comment