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‘A Hidden Life’ First Reactions: A Return to Form for Terrence Malick

The World War II drama has been anticipated as the most narrative-focused film by Terrence Malick since "The New World." Does it work?

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“A Hidden Life”

Reiner Bajo

A Hidden Life” comes to Cannes with high expectations. For one, it’s Terrence Malick’s most story-driven film since 2005’s “The New World.” For another, the true-life story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian conscientious objector who refused to serve in the Nazi war effort, is the kind of powerful narrative that could even resonate with Academy Awards voters. But if the past decade has proven anything at this point, it’s that it’s hard to know what expect from Malick.

Malick won the Palme d’Or at Cannes 2011 for “The Tree of Life,” widely regarded by critics as one of the best films of the 21st century to date. Though they have their fans, his follow-ups haven’t earned the same level of acclaim and devotion. “To the Wonder,” “Knight of Cups,” and “Song to Song” were impressionistic reveries with little plot and lots of poetic voiceover. His “Voyage in Time” seemed calibrated for IMAX theaters at natural history museums alone. Could Malick tell a story again?

Early reviews suggest that he can — and that “A Hidden Life” is his best film in years. Here’s what critics are saying:

David Ehrlich, IndieWire:

“‘A Hidden Life’ is a lucid and profoundly defiant portrait of faith in crisis. It’s an intimate epic about the immense strength required for resistance, and the courage that it takes for one to hold fast to their virtue during a crisis of faith, and in a world that may never reward them for it. It is, without question, the best thing that Malick has made since ‘The Tree of Life.'”

Justin Chang, The Los Angeles Times

“Sunday marked Malick’s return to Cannes, and it felt like a homecoming in more than one sense. His extraordinarily beautiful and wrenching new movie is called ‘A Hidden Life,’ a title that quotes from ‘Middlemarch,’ though one that could easily be misinterpreted as a reference to this famously press-shy auteur himself. But it also sounds an echo of ‘The Tree of Life,’ which may be more than mere coincidence: If that 2011 film was Malick’s most personal and autobiographical work, then this one feels like a decisive return to roots. It’s at once a linear, almost classically structured drama and an exploratory, intensely romantic work of art.”

Tim Grierson, Screen Daily

“Terrence Malick often wrestles with the cosmic, the spiritual and the eternal, but with ‘A Hidden Life,’ the meditative writer-director attacks his usual themes from a rewardingly timely and urgent perspective. Telling the story of Franz Jägerstätter, a religious Austrian conscientious objector who chose prison over fighting for the Nazis, this tormented film follows the same dreamlike, whispery tone of Malick’s post-‘Tree of Life’ work, but that air of gentle contemplation is repeatedly undercut by the distant evil forces which are fast encroaching on these characters’ lives. Malick turns Jägerstätter into a Christ-like figure who martyred himself for his beliefs, but during the course of three hours, ‘A Hidden Life’ anguishes over the man’s sacrifice in a world that’s increasingly overrun by indifference and wickedness.”

Peter Debruge, Variety

“Back in Cannes with his best film since ‘The Tree of Life,’ Terrence Malick poses tough questions about personal faith in a world gone astray in this epic return to form.”

Steve Pond, TheWrap

“Based on the true story of an Austrian conscientious objector who refused to fight for Nazi Germany in World War II, ‘A Hidden Life’ is certainly the director’s best movie since his 2011 Palme d’Or winner ‘The Tree of Life’ — it’s his most monumental film since then, and perhaps his most sentimental film ever. And it is also slow and meditative, requiring viewers to sink into and surrender to that particular Malick style that some find maddening.”

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