After I posted my “First Impressions” of Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life” I received a response by email that was too good to leave hidden in my In-Box. So, with the author’s permission, here is a really thoughtful comment on Malick’s film:

Thanks Christopher.

I very much enjoyed reading your articulate review of the film.

One of my reactions is a sense that you are “affirmed” by the film’s message in a way that I am not.

You say “No matter how violent, unjust and chaotic the world may be, there is always gentleness, kindness and goodness for those with eyes to see.” 

I don’t disagree,​ but I can’t stop there either. I would equally say, “No matter how gentle, kind and good the world may be, there is always violence, injustice and chaos.” I didn’t leave the theatre feeling affirmed, rather I felt powerfully but simultaneously affirmed and denied. The tension between the affirmation and denial throughout the film was torment, on every front, but I never felt it was resolved. 

The inhumanity of the herd was horrific, but even that was ambivalent. Some villagers were good and the end of the movie suggested contrition with the family being accepted back into the the fold. Franz was inspiring and admirable​ but one of the strongest tensions of the film was the voice in my head saying “by what right do you torture and destroy your family when you have an option to be a medic where you could relieve suffering instead of generating it?” Which voice is the devil? Did he do the “right” thing, was he “good”? I utterly cannot say. There was no right thing and the good was completely impossible to discern. I desperately wanted resolve this tension and wanted good to triumph but I don’t think it did (in the film any more than it does – or ever will – in the world). 

My sense of Malick’s message is that we can’t purport to say (or hope) that the world is either good or bad, or that it is only acceptable as the good; we are relentlessly and forever torn between both, both – our position is to be crucified between the opposites, and this comes from God. This is the world that God made. The movie did not reaffirm my faith in the good alone and I’m not looking for that. I know the good will always be, as will the evil. I think Malick is saying Being is both, don’t look for one to prevail, but work to be as conscious as possible of both. Individual consciousness grows out of enduring this tension between the opposites without identifying with either. Of course, I am not talking about nihilism.

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I responded saying:

Thank you for this. It is brilliant. I wonder if you would allow me to post your response anonymously on my blog. It really is too good to just leave it sitting in my inbox alone.

I really do agree with everything you say. I absolutely agree that Malick majors in ambivalence. And I think one of the brilliant things in the film is that he avoids any kind of happy emotional catharsis or resolution. He is certainly not looking for easy answers. This is not Hollywood.

I am reminded of my reaction to Mel Gibson’s much reviled “The Passion of the Christ”. Back in 2016, I wrote about this film precisely the same thing I have just said about “A Hidden Life”:

Unwilling to face the darkness Gibson portrays, we are unable to perceive the gentleness scattered throughout his film.

https://inaspaciousplace.wordpress.com/2016/03/24/mel-gibson-the-passion-of-the-christ-movie-review/

The darkness and horror Malick portrays is very real and entirely horrifying. Without a doubt he does not let us off lightly.

But, nonetheless, throughout the film there are moments of light, acts of generosity, kindness, even courage and nobility. And, there is always the transcendent beauty and power of creation that suffuses the film.

Absolutely, we must be willing/able to hold the dark and the light. Both are real, both are true. I suppose I feel that my job is to coax people to continue to look to, and trust in, the light, without ignoring or denying the reality of the darkness which makes it possible to see the light. Perhaps that is what “Thanksgiving” is for.