Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life Exposes Our Showy Selfie Culture

Originally published on stephenmcapline.com – 24 January 2020

If you’re a Terrence Malick fan, then you’ve got to see his latest film, A Hidden Life. It’s terrific.  If you are not a Malick fan, become one by going to see it.  Mind you, at 2 hours 45 minutes its either empty your bladder or bring your catheter.

I got to see it at the Sydney pre-screening for the critics and “influencers”. Not being either one of those illustrious beasts, I was counting on the goodwill of Russ Matthews, of Third Space’s Reel Dialogue to give me a ticket. Make sure you read his review too.

A Hidden Life is Malick on steroids; sumptuously shot, long quiet camera pans, eruptions of activity, ponderous interior and tender moments. And devastating in its conclusion. There was a quietness about the audience even as we left that betrayed its impact, even on a hard-bitten movie crew such as they.

No spoilers, but set in an almost anachronistic pre-industrial Austrian mountain village  at the outset of the second world war, it shows how evil and division can shatter the balance of simple, gentle and noble life. And it shows how, in the midst of that nauseating, and madness inducing giddiness, standing up for truth may not necessarily be rewarded, not in this age at least.

It shows too how bravery is also not rewarded by those closest to it, those who should know better. There is an inexorable nature to this movie that leaves you hoping against hope, yet giving you hope nonetheless when all hope seems gone. Go see it!

As I sat there two things struck me about this movie that are completely alien to the modern Western audience.  First, the deep Christian spirituality that completely infused it. I sat there wondering how this most likely secular audience was imbibing it.

Before the screening started the two young women sitting behind me were laughing and chatting raucously, both discussing the fact that they were Jewish, but only in the most secular and ethnic of senses. They were, as they put it, “Not observant”, “Not into the religious side of it, unlike her mother”. 

They chuckled off the religion as if it were an afterthought, serene in their lack of knowledge that the very events to be depicted on the screen in the following hours were the biggest, and most anguished, challenge to faith of their forebears, in a way that I hope they will never have to experience.

Without God this film would not work. Simple yet profound, orthodox yet vital, the Catholic faith of the main characters is completely at odds with this secular age. The majestic mountains loomed large in the background scenes, but it was clear they were not the pinnacles of transcendence. There was something – Someone – above those peaks, Someone towards whom the oppressed, betrayed and heartbroken could look even if – and when – the mountains trembled and writhed in anguish at history’s churning.

There was constant Scripture being quoted, prayers being offered up in almost stream of conscious interior dialogue, increasing along with the intensity of the experiences.  It felt like what “praying without ceasing” is like.

Malick’s weightiness is how he gives true weightiness to God, even in the midst of a seemingly god-forsaken era in our history, and even when the supposedly godly – the institutional church – is either too cowardly to stand up for what it says it believes, or too complicit in the evil that men do.  I wondered how a non-religious person would even be able to grasp the depths of what was going on.

August Diehl and Valerie Pachner in the film A HIDDEN LIFE. Photo by Reiner Bajo. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

But the second truth, and indeed the most searching truth of this movie is in the title itself. At a surface level, this is, or was, indeed a hidden life, a rural idyll cruelly interrupted by the machinations of war.  And Malick makes much of the bucolic, almost Edenic quality, albeit an Eden that contains a sly and dreadful serpent.

The title is from a quote in George Eliot’s Middlemarch.  And its presence quietened those of us in the cinema even further, if that were possible, as the screen went black at the end.

‘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.’

Unhistoric acts. A hidden life.  Unvisited tombs.

Could anything be the opposite of the reveal all, virtue-signalling, self-conscious authenticity culture that blights our society in 2020 as much as a world war blighted that of those Austrian villagers?  Yet that is most of our lives.  Most of the time.  We struggle to admit that it true.  We even announce our intentions to hide when we say to 2345 of our closest friends that we are going to “take a break from Facebook for the next month”.

The curse in our culture in which everyone is a social media critic and an online influencer, is that we should be unhistoric, hidden, unvisited.  I trend therefore I am is the mantra of the day.  To remain hidden is defeat.  To be unvisited, either physically or technologically, is the true death sentence while we yet live.  We are selfie-ing ourselves to death, as Neil Postman might put it if he’d been around today.

Malick’s movie shatters us with our own loud pretensions and our desperate attempts to garner a well curated exposed life. And it cut me to the core. I hope it cut others too, influencers and critics alike.

In several scenes, the main character is interrogated as to why he is bothering to hold to his convictions.

“Will anyone even hear about what you are doing?” 

“What difference can you doing this ever make?”

“Do you think what you are doing will ever be known outside these walls?”

Time after time the serpentine Swastika challenges him to grasp at the significance it alone promises to extend to him. Time after time he refuses the devil’s temptations, praying the types of prayers the Lord Jesus no doubt prayed during those “opportune” times that the devil tempted him, times that the Scriptures have not made privy to us.  Malick leaves us in no doubt of the Christ-like nature of this man, whose strength is not from himself, but from the heavenly Father.

And as if to further twist the knife, we discover that a man’s most painful enemies are the members if not his household, then the extended household and village that so shapes his identity. There is a second hero in this movie who bears, if it were possible, an even greater burden.

I must say I was wounded to the heart watching the final fifteen minutes, a wound that was simultaneously deepened and healed by that Eliot quote. In my temptations to curate a significant, public and influential life of my own, the only thing that was exposed was my oft sinful tendency to “matter”.  Because if I don’t “matter” then what does it matter?

But as we are so stunningly reminded by A Hidden Life, there is One who sees all, knows all and hears all.  Indeed feels all we feel.  And who has in Christ, become the ultimate Man, refusing temptation in the face of a scorching enemy, and who takes the force of the self conscious fakery of a culture gone mad.

 Malick is in his eighth decade now, a man who has seen the West shift from the reserve and humility of an Austrian village, to the brash shouty culture in which nothing is hidden, and therefore, ironically, nothing is truly revealed.

So perhaps things would not be so ill between you and me; between me and that unknown social media interlocutor who told me he was going to “rip me a new one” last week; between you and your online antagonist, if we took Eliot at her word, and Malick at his.

After all profound things can still happen in those liminal and ephemeral moments when the screen goes black.

Originally published on stephenmcapline.com – 24 January 2020