CITIZEN K – movie review

CITIZEN K
Greenwich Entertainment/Amazon Studios
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Alex Gibney
Screenwriter: Alex Gibney
Cast: Mikkhail Khodorkovsky, NYMikhail Gorvachev, Vladimir Putin, Vladimir Petukhov, Leonid Nevzlin,
Screened at: Critics’ link, 12/17/19
Opens: January 15, 2020

Citizen K (2019) picture s_id875062.jpg

I would like to have been in Moscow to observe the well-preserved body of Vladimir Lenin on the day that “Citizen K” was released. You can be assured that he would be turning over in whatever receptacle is holding his bearded frame, because somehow the gods might have allowed Lenin to watch this movie and weep for what happened to his country, to his fondest dream. Instead of a paradise for workers and peasants, the former Soviet Union, having lost its satellite empire and given up communism, did not replace it with the kind of capitalism that Milton Friedman or Michael Bloomberg or New York Times economist columnist Paul Krugman would cherish. Russia is now under the influence of a wild-west kind of capitalism that some of us here in the U.S. can understand, given that in our country one percent of the citizens owns some twenty-five percent of the wealth. Inequality is even worse over there: at one point the oligarchs, the seven richest men in Russian, controlled fifty percent of the economy. Maybe Putin’s interest in gobbling up parts of Ukraine and feasting his eyes as well on the former satellite countries is his desire to distract the Russian people for what is being done to them.

“Citizen K” Alex Gibney, whose 2005 doc “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” lays out the case for a corruption that led to the company’s demise, now concentrates on two factors in the Russian economic and political goings-on. One subject is Putin, now the head of his country for eighteen years. The other is Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of the oligarchs and perhaps the richest man in Russian, whose fall for criticizing Putin led to the state’s seizure of his asserts and his imprisonment in Siberia for ten years. Gibney’s camera switches from president to oligarch, the former winning a series of fake elections while the latter, exiled in London and still holding on to hundreds of millions of dollars stashed safely in countries like Ireland, directs his venom toward the current Russian system.

Gibney has a way of making documentaries into thrillers as he did with Enron, though in this case he relies too much on a hugely intrusively score to give the impression that he is filming not a doc to enlighten us so much as a thriller to capture our emotions. Zipping through a series of historical events that pave the way to the present Russia, Gibney, ignoring Lenin and completely and showing a quick, archived film with Stalin’s picture, points us past Gorbachev’s glasnost era (Gorby is still considered by many in Russia to have single-handedly caused the Soviet Union’s end), through Boris Yeltsin’s turn at bat. With the government about to collapse once again leading perhaps to a return to Communism, Yeltsin bargained with the oligarchs. The state would borrow money from them knowing that they could not be paid back. And the oligarchs would own Russia’s leading assets, including oil.

During that time Khodorkovsky—whom we see as a young man and then as a figure aged largely by his stay in Siberia—by himself created the country’s first commercial bank while at the same time picking up Yukos, a number of Siberian oil fields, at pennies on the dollar. Khodorkovsky is later blamed for the murder of a Siberian oil town mayor who had claimed that Khodorkovsky evaded taxes, and guess who would be the leading suspect, given that it even happened on the oligarch’s birthday! Putin, moving rapidly up the political ladder, determined to go against Khodorkovsky at a time that the rich man exposed state corruption. K was arrested on fake charges and sent on a seven day’s journey to a Siberian prison. One must wonder why Putin did not simply have the man poisoned or shot, as he has been charged of doing for several other opponents.

Behind the lenses, Mark Garrett and Denis Sinyakov give us the long view of Russia’s seat of government while switching to a one-on-one series of interviews with a seated Khodorkovsky. This may not be a Michael Moore type of doc, loaded with wit and humor, but with its quick pacing and a script that allows us in the audience to understand at least a little of what our adversaries in Moscow are doing, it serves as entertainment and enlightenment equally.

126 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – B+

LES MISERABLES – MOVIE REVIEW

LES MISÉRABLE
Amazon Studios
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ladj Ly
Screenwriter: Ladj Ly, Giordano Gederlini, Alexis Manenti
Cast: Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djibril Zonga, Issa Perica, Al-Hassan Ly, Steve Tientcheu
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 10/24/19
Opens: January 10, 2020

Les misérables (2019)

Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables” is to the French what Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” is to the Russians: its most celebrated classic novel. In the opening pages, Hugo tells of Jean Valjean, who broke into a bakery, stole a loaf of bread, and is sentenced to 19 years’ hard labor. What does the author want us to take away from the French sense of justice? That the theft of bread is indeed a crime deserving of punishment. More important, that the severe sentence imposed by the court is way out of line, a rank injustice. What is gained by such hard-nosed attitudes toward a member of French society? In most cases (though not in Valjean’s), you are turning out hardened people whose later criminality will result in offenses far greater than that of the theft of bread. In other words, the society is far more at fault than the individual.

This is the principal idea conveyed by Mali-born director (and sometimes actor) Ladj Ly, who co-wrote the new “Les Misérables” with Giordano Gederlini and Alexis Manenti. France has been unable to assimilate Muslims and other poor immigrants and their children to their society whereas America has for the most part succeeded in doing so here. Determined to rid Paris and other “civilized” towns and cities of these desperately poor people, the French government settled them in banlieues, in this case the director’s own suburb of Montfermeil, also a setting in the classic novel by Hugo. Montfermeil is not a suburb as you may think of an area outside a large city, but instead is one inhabited by jobless people on the dole, having little chance of getting employment or of moving to the City of Lights. Such a ‘burb is a powder keg, and in director Ly’s freshman full-length feature, the neighborhood explodes. The people living here would not likely be prone to violence and even anarchy had they grown up in Paris or Lyon or Bordeaux. As Ly develops the story based on his short film of the same name, it took little more overly aggressive cops to light the fuse. You will leave the theater noting the obvious comparisons to those incidents in the U.S. in which some cops, called racists by some who oppose their actions, have shot unarmed African-Americans without just cause.

Cramming a boatload of stories into a single episode taking place in just one day, Ly hones in Montfermeil where Issa (Issa Perica), a fifteen-year-old boy, has stolen an adorable lion cub from a circus whose tents are in town. A trio of plainclothes cops get on the case. As you watch officers Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djibril Zonga) go after the perp with a vengeance, the third member of the force, just transferred Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), serves as the moral center, doing his best to tone down his partners. Stéphane looks like a fish out of water, serving a dog-eat-dog community featuring a group of radicalized Muslims trying to push its version of Sharia law on the folks; another of gypsies running the traveling circus; and a third, a bunch of rowdy teens who have playing soccer but get their real kicks trashing the police.

The opening scene is terrific. A huge crowd has formed on the Champs Élysées cheering the victorious team that had just taken the World Cup. Surprisingly the youngsters are draped in the French tricolors, making us think that they are as patriotic as Charles DeGaulle. After that celebration, any semblance of unity falls apart. The gypsies under Zorro (Raymond Lopez) want their lion back. The self-styled crime boss called The Mayor (Steve Tientcheu) grapples with the radicalized Muslims, one of whom notes that the Koran in effect forbids human beings from living with lions under captivity, feeding them when the glorious beasts would have no problem in the forest feeding themselves.

When chaos breaks out, Gwanda hits chief troublemaker and lion thief Issa with a shot of a flash-ball gun, signaling full-scale rebellion. Of the police, only Stéphan keeps his ideals, using his limited influence in calming the communities. But nowadays you’d be hard-pressed to keep any mayhem private, as the area’s nerdish Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly) has captured the illegal police action with a camera affixed to his hobby drone. Getting the memory card back becomes the principal concern of the police.

If you crave action, you’ve got that particularly in the final segment of the film, the kids acting as though they think this is a real police riot they are provoking rather than realizing that they are in a film. The fight scene, as it were, is deliciously choreographed under Julien Poupard’s lenses. The film serves not only as pure entertainment but as a veritable sociology lesson on life in a community an hour removed from the Arc d’Triomphe but which might as well be on the moon. With a sound track from Pink Noise and some breathtaking photos including the flight of a drone, “Les Misérables” gives us a heightened sense of how society can alienate not only a group despised by so many in their country but also a police force made increasingly callous by its experiences.

108 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – B+

ADVOCATE – movie review

ADVOCATE

Film Movement
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Rachel Leah Jones, Philippe Bellaïche
Screenwriter: Rachel Leah Jones
Cast: Lea Tsemel, Michel Warschawski
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/21/19
Opens: January 3, 2020 at New York’s Quad Cinema

Advocate (2019)

Some of us in the U.S. are proud to say that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, but Palestinians and ordinary people in large parts of the world may disagree. It’s true that Israel has a working parliament, the Knesset, with real powers (if the multiple parties could ever agree on anything), but Israel continues to occupy land around surrounding it in Gaza, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. And while the court system really works, it functions better for some (the Israelis) than for others (the Palestinians). One Palestinian a while back sums up: “Israel has democracy for the Jews, dictatorship for the Palestinians).

Where else, though, can you find an occupier which has lawyers within its borders defending the occupied? Berkeley-born Rachel Leah Jones, who majored in Race, Class and Gender Studies with a graduate degree in Documentary Media Studies, and Parisian Philippe Bellaïche, who has been honored by several awards for his films, focus on Lea Tsemel, that rare Jewish attorney who has spent her career defending Palestinians, has been regularly attacked by her own people who presumably never heard of the concept that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. How does she have the chutzpah to take on cases involving suicide bombers and terrorists? Somebody has to do it. If Palestinians do not put forth a lawyer who can compare with Tsemel in the court, she’s the one to do it. (Aside: Even Eichmann had a trial, but with a German attorney.)

No doubt about it. Documentarians Jones and Bellaïche love Lea Tsemel, who is in virtually every scene, someone whom Americans of a certain age might compare to New York’s late great Bella Abzug. Though she has defended Palestinians for decades, the focus is on two cases. One involves a 13-year-old boy who is arrested for taking part in what the prosecution calls attempted murder. He was an accomplice to the kid who actually stabbed two Israelis of about the same age. He too held a knife and that is what dooms him to face either a few years in a juvenile center or, if he went to trial a considerably longer stretch in an adult prison. Tsemel appears to have convinced the family to take their chances on a trial, given that he did not actually commit the stabbing.

Another case involves a woman who is arrested for terrorism when her car, laden with explosives and apparently meant to cause several killings, blew up accidentally, injuring her. You might think that given the injuries she sustained, the judges might not come down as harshly on her as they would had she succeeded.

As for why Tsemel does what she does though by her own admission she is bound to lose most of her cases, she explains that this is the right thing to do. “After fifty years of occupation” becomes almost her logo. Her long-term husband, Michel Warschawski, also a demonstrator for Palestinian rights, was once given the option: either give up all political relationships with Palestinians and be freed immediately, or suffer years in jail. He chose the latter, largely because of prompting from his wife.

Tsemel believes by implication that were there a two-state solution and the Palestinians had their own country, there would be peace. End of terrorism. Whether she is correct is anybody’s guess, but I’d imagine the typical viewer of this documentary who is pro-Israel even while objecting to the Netanyahu right-wing government would be skeptical.

From time to time the screen is bisected with animation to protect the identities of the advocate’s clients. This is a distraction. One wonders why faces could not be clouded over as they are in American movies. Of course there is an imbalance of power. Has any society in history occupying another ever given equal rights to the conquered?

Lea Tsemel turns out not only to be a fine lawyer (despite losing most of her cases) but an excellent actress, who dominates
proceedings and rivets attention. The film played at a couple of dozen festivals and is scheduled to open January 3, 2020
at NewYork’s Quad Cinema. In Hebrew, Arabic and English.

108 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B+

THE SONG OF NAMES – movie review

THE SONG OF NAMES
Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: François Girard
Screenwriter: Jeffrey Caine based on a novel by Norman Lebrecht
Cast: Tim Roth, Clive Owen, Catherine McCormack, Jonah Hauer-King, Gerran Howell, Luke Doyle
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 10/29/19
Opens: December 25, 2019

The Song of Names (2019)

It’s not all that unusual for people to disappear. Men run away from their marriages. Women from small towns bolt, fed up with kinder, küche and kirche. Not long ago Deborah Feldman ran away from her Hasidic Jewish family which she considered to be stifling, disappearing into Greenwich Village, washing her laundry in her memoir “Unorthodox.” “The Song of Names” is likewise about a person who disappears, but this fellow runs not away from the rigidities of religion but more deeply into it. The overriding concept is this: why would a person vanish for thirty-five years, abandoning the foster brother who grew to love him and the foster father who financed and encouraged him and who lost so much money because of the young man’s evaporation?

Through Jeffrey Caine’s adaptation of a novel by Norman Lebrecht by the same name, director François Girard constructs a movie about music and betrayal, building on his own love of music as shown through his “Thirty Short Films About Glenn Gould,” which are vignettes about the pianist’s life, ‘The Red Violin” about the passion created by the instrument over centuries, and the TV episode “Yo-Yo Ma Inspired by Bach.” While “The Song of Names” is clearly about music, Girard is more interested in the emotional bond between two young men who had grown to love each other, and the search by one to find his foster brother who had ruined the life and finances of a British music publisher who had invited him into his home, bought a 284-year-old violin, and died two months after the disastrous disappearance.

This is one of those films that come forth as convoluted given the editor’s frequent changes of eras. The betrayer, Dovid, is played by Luke Doyle aged 9, by Gerran Howell ages 17-21, and thirty-five years later by Clive Owen acting out of his comfort zone as a middle-aged ultra-Orthodox Jew. His foster brother Martin is played by Misha Handley aged 9, by Jonah Hauer-King ages 17-23, and thirty-five years later by Tim Roth. The opening scenes are the most realistic and credible before the story heads off into a not-easily-believed fantasy zone.

Dovid’s father sent his violin prodigy to London to live with a family that includes Martin, who is about the same age and is envious of his new foster-brother’s gifts. Though Martin and Martin’s dad are Christian, the British household honors all Jewish traditions for their new guest, even abandoning their love of breakfast bacon. After a bout of sibling rivalry, the two youths become great friends. When Martin’s father invests in a concert expected to start Dovid’s career as a musician, Dovid disappears completely, leaving the audience at the refund booth and the underwriter heavily in debt. When Martin, now in his mid-fifties, finally tracks Dovid down, he finds out for the first time what happened to his friend. He discovers—as do we in the audience—wholly dubious circumstances of the vanishing act.

In the midst of the credulity-straining tale are some moving scenes. During the German bombing of London, as Dovid takes refuse in the neighborhood air-raid shelter (impressively decked out with scores of sandbags), Dovid pulls out his violin, setting up a competition with a slightly older violinist as though executing a theme and a fugue. On an even more emotional level, the middle-aged Dovid discovers what happened to his parents who had stayed in Poland too late to avoid the Holocaust. A rabbi (Kamil Lemieszewski), doubling as a cantor, sings a song of names whereby the melody makes it easier for him to recall the names of victims who died at Treblinka. Nor can the film be faulted for pulling at the tear ducts at a sight in Treblinka death camp, where the principals walk past stones that memorialize the murdered Jews.

Should we forgive Dovid for bankrupting Martin’s family given his rare talent with the strings, or do we find that difficult given also that Martin has spent his a lifetime fretting about Dovid’s disappearance, heading off from London, traipsing around Poland and New York to solve the puzzle? The movie suffers from the frequent editing to cover the three stages of life and could be served better by a chronological approach. Montréal and Budpest stand in for New York and Warsaw.

113 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – C
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – C+

INVISIBLE LIFE – movie review

INVISIBLE LIFE (A visa invisível)
Amazon Studios
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Karim Aïnouz
Screenwriter: Murilo Hauser, Ines Bortagaray, Karim Ainouz based on a novel y Martha Batalha
Cast: Carol Duarte, Juilia Stockler, Gregorio Duvivier, Fernanda Montenegro, Barbara Santos, Flavis Gusmao
Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 12/9/19
Opens: December 20, 2019

Invisible Life

Sisterhood is powerful. That’s a good slogan for our own time but had a different meaning in the 1950s. With “Invisible Life,” director Karim Aïnouz follows up on his “Praia do Futuro” about a doomed relationship to reveal the long story of two sisters who cannot get enough of each other but who are separated in Brazil’s famed city of Rio never to meet again. An American watching the picture can’t help thinking that the fifties, which despite prosperity marked a dull, conventional era in the U.S., has its reflection in the manners of a family in Brazil.

The film feature two women whose bond is obvious in the opening scenes when sisters Guida (Julia Stockler), now twenty years old and Euridice (Carol Duarte) now eighteen, making it all the more tragic that they are fated to be separated by Manuel (Antonio Fonseca)a mean-spirited father whose tyranny, supported by a patriarchal society, is unchecked by man’s passive wife Ana (Flavai Gusmao).

In one fateful night, Guida sneaks out of the house to attend a dance club with Yorgos (Nikolas Antunes), a Greek sailer. Euridice, a classical pianist, looks forward to traveling to Vienna to audition for a conservatory, an ambitious plan especially considering the need to travel by ship to a far-off city. Believing that she will marry her Greek boyfriend, Guida discovers that Yorgos (Nikoas Antunes), after making her pregnant, is off to find more sexual conquests. Guida returns home to a father who, seeing her daughter with child, disowns her and throws her out of the house. What’s more her conservative dad lies, telling her that Euridice had gone to Vienna. Little do the two young women realize that they may never cross paths again.

Guida, having no skills and no home, becomes a sex worker, mentored by an older hooker Filomena (Barbara Santos), who becomes her lifeline given the absence of her own family, while Euridice fares just a little better, having married a brute of a man via arranged marriage from her father, who sees that the young man has money and can treat her well. While Guida does marginally well, her sister, refusing the numb life of church, children and home, has a barrier put in the way of her feminist ambitions.

A Hollywood movie would doubtless have the two women find each other, surely by the close of two years or more. In one clever twist, the desire of the two sisters to meet is thwarted by a creative ploy, leading Euridice, now in her seventies or eighties, ultimately understanding why she is unable to meet up with her long lost sister. Yet director Aïnouz and her co-writers Murilo Hauser, Ines Bortagaray, adapt the novel by Martha Batalha to show the resilience of the two women, a trait that might make you think of how #Me Too people have spoken up, leading to the firing of major celebrities. A musical score that include Chopin and Liszt, and cinematography that brings out the period nature of the piece, help to make this film the obvious choice of the film people in Brazil to set up this candidate for end-year awards.

141 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – B

BOMBSHELL – movie review

BOMBSHELL

Lionsgate
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jay Roach
Screenwriter: Charles Randolph
Cast: Margot Robbie, Charlize Theron, Jennifer Morrison, Nicole Kidman
Screened at: Park Ave, NYC, 11/10/19
Opens: December 13, 2019

In “Bombshell,” Charlize Theron delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as Megyn Kelly, a larger-than-life lawyer best remembered for her aggressive questioning of candidate Donald Trump who replied when she cited Trump for calling women dogs, pigs and bimbos, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever.” This is the kind of programming, perhaps, that made Fox the number one cable news program in America. The picture as whole, though, is directed in a pedestrian way by Jay Roach, whose “Trumbo” was a devastating look at screenwriter Dalton Trumbo who in 1947 was blacklisted for his leftist political beliefs. Except for a documentary-style run showing events during past years, “Bombshell” follows a chronological trajectory, the style used by documentary filmmakers, but Michael Moore could probably make a doc with more biting satire and a boatload of humor that is largely missing from this film.

Roach uses a screenplay by Charles Randolph, whose “The Life of David Gale” is generally considered a flub but whose “The Big Short” is a dynamic piece of muckraking exposing financers on Wall Street who actually hoped that their clients would be unable to pay their mortgages. The current movie is anchored by three women, all blondes with fine figures, which Fox demands of its frontline news people. Charlize Theron serves as first among equals in the role of Megyn Kelly, who turned to journalism after a career as a corporate defense attorney and was included in the Time magazine list of the 100 most influential people. Her career town a sharp turn downward following her accusation that Roger Ailes, here played by John Lithgow complete with the jowels and triple chin of the news boss from the second floor and who is so large that he needed a walker to get around. Kelly accuses the late Roger Ailes of trying to kiss her on the lips, noting that Ailes freely told her that she has to play ball with him behind locked doors if she wants to unlock her career with Fox.

As Gretchen Carlson, Nicole Kidman portrays the journalist and author, also called by Time Magazine among the 100 most influential people in the world in 2017. Like Kelly, she accuses Ailes of harassment, shown here almost desperate in her goal of attracting the testimonies of other women who had been approached by the news boss in similar unsavory ways. She is perhaps the person most able to show that her testimony is not simply lies in order to collect a fat paycheck, suing Roger Ailes directly rather than Fox News, and signing up some twenty additional women with similar tales of sordid behavior.

For her part Kalya Pospisil, played by Margot Robbie, is stunned when called into Ailes’ second-floor office, eager to move up to “the front of the line” in news broadcasting, only to be commanded to life her skirt higher, and “no, higher,” “higher,” by Ailes, sitting comfortably behind his large desk, his breath seeming to come in greater spurts as Kayla, with considerable ambivalence, does what she is told.

The performers are made up to look quite like their real-live counterparts in much that Saturday Night Live has been able to disguise Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump and Kate McKinnon (also appearing here as a closeted lesbian) as KellyAnne Conway, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton among others. Malcolm McDowell gets a small but important role as Rupert Murdoch, the boss of bosses stationed on the eighth floor of the Fox building (filmed by Barry Ackroyd in Los Angeles). Though a big supporter of Ailes, even he turns against the man, refusing even to appear with him to announced Aiels’s dismissal from Fox, though he did hand over a handsome severance check, sending him off on a lavish party.

Fox News, with the slogan “Fair and balanced,” is clearly within the Republican-conservative view of politics, favoring free trade, an anti-abortion platform, and strong family bonds. Hypocrisy abounds, however, beyond the purview of this film, as accusations mounted up against Fox News Latino vice president Francisco Cortes who tried to coerce Tamara N. Holder into performing oral sex, Bill O’Reilly, whose show sporting combative, right-wing propaganda, is canned with the network’s settling with Juliet Huddy, including the firing of Fox sports president Jamie Horowitz.

108 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B-

 

A HIDDEN LIFE – movie review

A HIDDEN LIFE
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Terrence Malick
Screenwriter: Terrence Malick
Cast: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Maria Simon, Tobias Moretti, Bruno, Ganz, Matthias Schoenaerts, Karin Neuhauser, Ulrich Matthes
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 10/9/19
Opens: December 13, 2019

A Hidden Life Movie Poster

In the novel “Middlemarch,” George Eliot praises those of us who do good without getting our fifteen minutes of fame: “…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.” Among directors who take this expression to heart and project to their audience the lives of such people, you can scarcely find one more qualified than Terrence Malick. The master of meditative movies is back with his best offering in eight years, having wowed his (admittedly) relative small audience with “The Tree of Life,” the story of a family in Waco, Texas in 1956 wherein an adolescent boy is conflicted by his mother and father’s opposing ideas of upbringing.

With “A Hidden Life,” Malick takes us back to the 1940s, focusing his lenses on a family of six on a farm in St Radegun, Austria (filmed on location), a vista of compelling beauty framed by the Alps, complete with trees that rustle in the wind and brooks that flow without impedance. In a story based on real events, Franz Jägestätter (August Diehl) lives with his wife Franziska Jägerstätter, his mother-in-law, and his three young daughters. Franziska appears to have influenced him to the wonders of religion, a loving woman who cannot embrace her husband enough, who joins in the fun of mock chases with the little girls. He will later prove that he did not remain a hidden life, for his momentous decision to refuse to swear loyalty to Hitler who had annexed Austria threatens to cost him his life. A conscientious objector who nonetheless reports to an induction center where he refuses to raise his arm in a salute to Hitler, he suffers the hostility of all members of his farming community outside of his family. He would be punched spit upon, lectured by the town mayor, and altogether ostracized by these simply Austrian fellows who ecstatically welcomes the Anschluss, or annexation of their country to Germany.

Much of the three hour presentation is bound to tax the patience of some in the audience who might not be aware of the types of movies that Malick regularly makes. In this case, though the people in the story are all German speaking, ninety percent of the dialogue is in English, and not so much the dialogue of the people but instead that of their narrated thoughts. During the first segment of the movie, some in the audience will be wondering: When will something happen? Instead we see the daily, monotonous, grinding work of the people, threshing without the aid of modern equipment, cutting the wheat with scythes and harvesting with the aid of a donkey and a cow. The writer-director gives us a splendid picture of what farming was like some eighty years ago, later to contrast that with the brutality of the Nazis given almost complete authority over their Austrian prisoners.

You can’t say that when the Germans heard of this “traitor” who refuses to fight for the fatherland, they just hoisted him up on the gallows. Several military officers did their best to get him to sign a loyalty oath and take his chances on fighting. There was even some expectation that he would be exempted as were some farmers. Even in the end, when condemned to death, Judge Lueben (Bruno Ganz), one of the elderly judges on the military court, counseled that his protest would not mean a thing; that it would not stop the war or hinder the war effort in the slightest. Franz would probably agree. Though he probably lacked much education, his ethical choice was influenced not by consequentialism (make your ethical choice by the results that would ensue), but more by deontology (do the right thing even if by consequence it did not matter).

Since the church declared him a martyr and later beatified him, and since Malick made a film about him, the German judge was obviously wrong. It’s not clear from “A Hidden Life” what was in Franz’s background that made him the only farmer to refuse to serve the Führer, but by the conclusion of the three hours, we have a solid picture of the daily, natural life of small-town farmers contrasted with the brutality of the war effort. Diehl and Pachner anchor the film in their stirring roles, the latter showing how far a wife would go to stop her man from being a martyr, while Diehl demonstrates the absolute determination to resist.

This is a film that Malick fans will find irresistible.

180 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+