Even after 10 years of opening days, I’m still as giddy as ever about the start of the Toronto International Film Festival. So much about my approach to the festival has changed over the years – experience and wisdom are amazing gifts – but the one constant is a desire to kick the proceedings off on a high note. I always want to race out of the starting blocks with a sure-fire hit, the kind of film that I will hold up as the standard-bearer for that particular year.
In the beginning, I was rather hit-or-miss with my choices. Back in 2010, my first screening of the festival was John Curran’s Stone, starring Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, and Milla Jovovich. Norton played an arsonist who attempts to coerce his parole officer into helping him get out. I understand how the names lured me in – who wouldn’t want to watch De Niro and Norton go toe-to-toe with all of that intense machismo in a heavyweight acting title fight with Jovovich waiting ringside for the winner.
The problem is, no one even remembers the film now (most of all, me).
Not every film has to be a clear winner though. Two years later, I was mesmerized by Rust and Bone, an emotional romantic drama from Jacques Audiard, featuring Matthias Schoenaerts as a desperate man, seeking to hang onto custody of his young son, who crosses paths with a killer whale trainer (Marion Cotillard) struggling to overcome a near-tragic on-the-job accident. Cotillard had already won the Best Actress Oscar for La Vie en Rose and dazzled audiences in Inception (or maybe, just me), while Schoenaerts had my full attention after his star-making turn in Bullhead, just prior to the release of Rust and Bone. The film secured a spot on my top ten list that year, but wasn’t the breakout I had hoped it would be, despite my continued fondness.
I am a critic eager to engage my curious and high subjective sensibilities. I want to feel enraptured by a filmmaker willing to woo me, and if they have been successful before I’m more likely to give them more chances to do it again, even if the subsequent attempts fall short. I suppose it’s like love. If I loved you once, I’ll always love you.
That might explain my choice to kick off #TIFF2019. I decided to forego the allure of the Press & Industry screening of Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, which is quite surprising, since I’m a huge fan of both The Band and Robertson as a solo artist. I know I could have rocked out to that one, and probably would have dipped into my iTunes library for a trip down this musical memory lane. Or I could have ventured into Les Misérables, Ladj Ly’s 2019 Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize winner for an outside the box experience.
Instead, I settled in with A Hidden Life, the new film from Terrence Malick, a director that I, like most critics, have a certain history with that clouds my judgment about his work. My first experience with Malick came during my undergraduate years at Penn. I took an English class where we studied film as text, and this particular semester the focus was films from the 1970s and 80s. Malick’s Badlands made the cut and quite possibly stole the prize as the best film we saw. (It might be a toss-up between Badlands and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, which tells you something about that class.)
Badlands tracked a mismatched outlaw couple on the run (Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek) who wind up on a killing spree across South Dakota. Sheen was an older white t-shirt-wearing rebel-type, while Spacek was a too-young girl, far too happy to escape from her life and quite susceptible to Sheen hair-trigger charms. We’ve seen such romantic desperados before and since, but there was three-dimensionality to this portrayal, rooted in filmmaking that didn’t seem to have the time or the inclination to be a criminals on the run caper. That was all Malick and it set the tone for my undying appreciation of his work.
It didn’t hurt that during the first two decades of his career, Malick was an elusive and mercurial figure. Between 1973 and 1998, he only made three films. Badlands was his first feature, Days of Heaven in 1978, and The Thin Red Line in 1998. These films were events, mythic moving images handed down from a legendary filmmaker who, we all assumed, would step back into the void for another 20+years without gracing us with his vision.
Yet, something happened.
Malick became a far more present figure. I came close to saying accessible, which would have been totally inaccurate. His films in the new millennium – among them Tree of Life, To The Wonder, and Knight of Cups – were not readily open to viewers. In fact, Malick seemed to be hiding from us, speaking endlessly in voiceovers, while he focused on beautiful shots, fragmented glimpses of nature and human souls in limbo, at odds with the world around them. Narratives were slippery, like liquid, too quick to be scooped up, tasted and savored as thirst-quenching sustenance.
A Hidden Life reveals the Malick I’ve been waiting ever-so patiently for all these years. He continues to let his characters speak in voiceovers and bathes us with lush visuals, but there is a perfect union here that’s been missing since his first films. I would argue that Malick has found a subject and a narrative that has engaged him and his artistic sensibilities like never before.
He has always been a man of faith. And in Franz Jäggerstätter (August Diehl), he has found a kindred spirit. The narrative, which Malick wrote, is based on a true story, the experiences of Franz, an Austrian farmer and family man, a grounded and loving man of principle who is put to the test when he’s drafted to serve in the Nazi army. At first, he goes for basic training and writes back to his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner) of his time, the camaraderie with a fellow soldier, the physical demands of training, which appeal to his rustic nature. But we see him questioning the ideological bending exacted on his fellow trainees and his resistance. He longs to be away, back working on the land, contributing to the well-being of his community, and playing games with his wife and daughters.
But when he returns from training, his home is different as well. The elders of the village have been seduced by Nazi propaganda too, fearing the rise of Others, intent on replacing natural born citizens and bastardizing the land and country. There is a subtlety to Malick’s writing and execution that lets these arguments, largely spoken as direct dialogue rather than in voiceover, address our current political environment without capturing the sentiments and the parallels in bold highlights.
Franz, though, retreats inside his head, where he holds his philosophical and spiritual truths and seems drawn to engage with his Maker and God, but in the world, with his family and community, Franz lives this faith with every breath he takes and every move he makes. In doing so, he inspires his wife who, as a woman of the time, doesn’t appear to wrestle with such concerns. She works tirelessly and loves Franz and her girls with the same passion.
Yet it is her love for Franz that enlists her to his cause, which he’s not always able to articulate to her. She places her faith and devotion in him, just as he does in his higher power/belief system.
A Hidden Life is about how each, in their own way, is tested, and how we should be inspired to such lengths. Franz, for all his passion, is no simple Christ-like figure. He’s all-too human, flawed and humbled, eternally questioning, but we also recognize, in him, the daily striving to be better, to live his commitment, even if, as everyone tells him, he’s setting an example that no one will follow.
That is the crux of A Hidden Life. To do what is right sometimes means acting purely for the sake of that right without being appreciated or celebrated for it. Malick knows a thing or two about that, as a filmmaker. He has labored, especially in his recent output, to remain focused on an elliptical and exasperatingly poetic approach, totally at odds with the more propulsive execution of the moment.
But here and now, with A Hidden Life, Malick has produced a revelation, not some prophecy passed through him to a waiting audience. No, this is all his own effort, his struggle to reconcile his faith and its place in the world. And it is wonderfully realized.