In her review of Terrence Malick’s movie A Hidden Life (January SR), Jessica Walsh contends that “you could easily lose over an hour without losing any plot points.” This argument betrays a rather functional approach to cinema.
Jessica is closer to the truth, I think, when she acknowledges that Malick’s contemplation of the anti-Nazi stance of religious conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter is “a meditative hymn”.
In narrative terms, the film is remarkably reminiscent of Arthur Miller’s great play The Crucible, and, like that drama, it contains the essential elements of a Greek tragedy. As Jessica acknowledges, the movie also boasts visually sumptuous cinematography; the representations of the Austrian valley where Jägerstätter lived are unforgettably beautiful.
However, the film’s crucial aspect lies in Malick’s extraordinary ability to make you feel as if you are looking, not just at a character, but into their soul. This (for me, emotionally compelling) element absolutely requires the movie to run to three hours.
The great power of art is that it can make us feel more than we understand. It is precisely its “spiritual” dimension that makes A Hidden Life a masterpiece.