I am sitting in a small independent cinema that normally seats two hundred patrons. There are nineteen people scattered around the theatre; I know sixteen of them.

No, this is not a private screening; this is movie-watching in COVID-Time. The movie is Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life”; a few intrepid members of the congregation in which I serve, have allowed themselves to be coaxed into attending.

I cannot remember ever having been in a cinema for a three-hour film during which it appears that not one has moved a muscle for the entire screening. When the lights come up and the final credits roll, I am stunned to realize there are people sitting around me and my wife huddled in our seats.

To say that watching Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life” is intense is a bit like saying Franz Jaegerstatter’s time in a Nazi prison was uncomfortable. “Intense” hardly conveys adequately the searing experience of watching Jaegerstatter’s tragic struggle unfold on the screen.

I would not normally have risked going to a theatre to view a film in these days of coronavirus, but I had a feeling that the power of Malick’s newest film would be diminished on a small screen. I was right.

It is hard to imagine, without experiencing it, the impact on the viewer of cinematographer Jörg Widmer’s luminous camera work, accompanied by a typically majestic Malick musical score, his signature poetic writing, and the extraordinary acting he inevitably coaxes from his cast.

Every shot in the film calls the viewer back from the brutality unfolding in the world beyond the Jaegerstatter home in St. Radegund. It is hard not to be moved by the soaring jagged mountain peaks cut out against the darkening sky or shrouded in mist and cloud, the constant flow of water rushing along between the banks of the Salzach River, or moving down primitive aqueducts or cascading from mountainsides, the fractured light breaking through the cracks in buildings, the lush grain in fields ready for harvest. The scenes remind the viewer of the beauty that haunts the world with a gentleness and truth, that Malick seems always to discern even in the midst of the most horrifying terror and lies.

It is a curious experience to have read an early version of Malick’s screenplay before viewing the film. Reading the script gives a taste of the power of the movie, but in diminished form. On paper, the film feels more like a philosophical debate about the value of non-violence, the call of individual conscience, the horrifying reality of violence in human affairs, the role of faith communities in the face of evil, and the possibility of nobility and integrity in a world shattered by injustice and cruelty.

Malick’s film raises all these profound questions while refusing to offer settled conclusions.

In the end, what Malick seems to want to do in this film, rather than solving abstract intellectual conundrums, is precisely what I experienced in the cinema. He wants to stop us in our tracks. He wants us to be reduced to silence. Then he seeks to pry open the prison door of our heart to the possibility of transcendent beauty and love.

Allan Jacobs articulates the point of “A Hidden Life” profoundly when he asks in his beautiful essay,

Can Malick’s imagination stretch from the staggering beauty of the Alpine valley where Franz and his wife Fani had hoped they would be high enough, distant enough, to be safe, to the horrors of Tegel prison and then the guillotine? Can he show us? Perhaps. Can he make us understand? No.


Malick is aiming at a dimension deeper than rational comprehension or dogma or even sentiment. His goal is closer to what Dame Julian of Norwich called “shewing”. “Shewing” is more than just seeing; it is a deep inner experience of instinctive knowing. It is a revelation that takes place in the depths of the human spirit. “Shewing” traverses the mysterious intangible terrain of faith.  It calls for the miracle of trust that, even in the face of so much evidence to the contrary, there remains in the human heart the possibility of truth and hope that cannot be extinguished even by the worst brutality.

Malick challenges the viewer to open to the proposition that, no matter how dark and chaotic the world may be, there remains evidence of the Divine calling us to discern a deeper truth. Malick seems interested, not so much in imparting knowledge or information, but in training. He is trying to teach us a new way of seeing, a new way of beholding the world.

If we follow his lead, we begin to penetrate the clouds and, through the darkness behold that, no matter how fractured human relationships may be, there is always the possibility of enduring love and faithfulness hidden in the secret place of the human heart. No matter how violent, unjust and chaotic the world may be, there is always gentleness, kindness and goodness for those with eyes to see.

But, be warned, this film moves slowly… slowly… slowly.

The truth Malick seeks to embody is an experience. This experience requires time and the practice of patience.

The pace of the film is part of the point. “Shewing” requires slowing down; it will not be rushed. Malick eschews the familiar techniques of accustomed human discourse or entertainment. He refuses to satisfy our desire for quick answers. He will not cater to our desire for superficial emotional gratification and distraction.

Sitting quietly in a movie theatre surrounded by the continuing threat of COVID and the chaos of political unrest in the world, watching scenes of tenderness and love unfold on the screen offers an opportunity to have our faith reaffirmed and our grasp of deep truth renewed.

Like the practice of church, Malick’s “A Hidden Life” may be precisely the antidote the world needs at this time in the face of the confusion and chaos that are so prevalent in our day as they were in the days of the Franz and Fani Jaegerstatter.