Opening Friday, Jan. 17

It’s 1939, and homesteaders Franz and Fani have made an idyllic life for themselves in the verdant valleys of Austria. Working the land with their three little girls, they are deliriously happy, in love with each other and the agrarian paradise around them.

But when war descends, the devout Franz refuses to swear the requisite oath of loyalty to the new Nazi regime. He’s seen what they do.

What happens from there forms the narrative and moral center of director Terrence Malick’s beautiful, haunting A Hidden Life. The film is based on the true story of conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter, who was later beatified by the Catholic church. The story is a good fit for Malick, whose recurring themes concern the beauty of nature, the nature of faith, and the cosmic significance of the choices we make.

Malick might be the most purely cinematic storyteller of the New Hollywood directors. For him, the script is just the merest of beginnings. He’s in the transport business, really, and here, he brings us to a time and place where the souls of people and nations are in play.

Malick’s fluid camera toggles between restless tracking shots and painterly still images so elegant that you want to drift into the frame. The story resonates on frequencies of image, sound, and movement that radiate out from the plot points, shimmering with significance.

Among those resonant frequencies is a contemporary echo. The film has some things to say about the dark lure of fascism and the puzzling complicity of certain evangelical groups. But Malick’s vision is just too grand to be confined to allegory or even history. As with his 2011 epic The Tree of Life, he’s asking the big questions, painting with darkness and light.

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