You would think that a global pandemic and semi-enforced quarantine would be an ideal time to watch a few movies a day and devote one's time to creative pursuits (like, for example, posting more frequently on a blog that's been dormant for over a year). Many people said as much in the early days of COVID: now, at least, I can finish all those projects that have been sitting on the back-burner, left unfinished due to a lack of time and mental energy.
But best laid plans rarely work out the way we expect them to, and just like countless novels and home renovation projects remain unwritten or half-complete, my desire to post on Phantom Lightning several times a week during quarantine was fruitless. The problem wasn't having time or access to watch movies, but having the motivation to focus more on personal creative projects than on pressing issues like social justice (especially in my hometown of Minneapolis) and the apparent encroachment of manmade apocalypse.
It was hard to fend off a feeling of futility in 2020. Managing a film blog can be a thankless task in the best of times, without much reward besides the thrill of discoursing about vital works of art (which is significant in itself). Couple that with a moratorium on theatrical moviegoing and you have a nagging feeling of irrelevance when faced with a website devoid of new content.
That sense of futility extends to the shame of living in a place that's become synonymous with police brutality. I love Minneapolis (not least because of the electrifying experiences its artistic venues provide on a near-daily basis, or used to), but that feeling of pride means nothing when placed alongside the ongoing murder and oppression of communities of color by the city's supposed forces of law and order. In the wake of George Floyd's killing in 2020, the rest of the year was primarily spent, for me and for many similarly outraged neighbors, at peaceful protests and marches, attending vigils and events, trying to find some small way to resist my city's culpability in white supremacy. Compared to that goal, writing about movies on a freelance blog fails to hold the same significance.
As the calendar turned from 2020 to 2021, more victims of the Minnesota police were added to that list: Dolal Idd on December 30, Daunte Wright on April 11, making it clear that the racism and brutality that we had all been protesting against shows no sign of abating. The Derek Chauvin verdict is one small (and necessary) sign of accountability, but the feeling of political futility has only deepened; it's more necessary than ever to fight for this cause, but also more discouraging when the American police keep killing people of color at an ultraviolent pace.
The year 2020 wasn't "cancelled," as might have initially seemed the case, but it was a year in which our priorities (as individuals, as a country) came into sharp focus. In life, we rarely see immediate satisfaction whatever we're pursuing, but that became especially aggravating last year, whether the goal was justice reform or (the much less urgent concern of) a well-populated blog. Over time, though, I was reminded of a truth that led me to love film criticism in the first place: writing about art and practicing political activism are flip sides of the same coin. Nearly everything is political, and people who try to pretend otherwise are operating under an assumption of privilege; modern American life is only apolitical if you don't have to worry about your place in it. Writing about movies is undoubtedly political, and by grappling with the discomfort or anger we feel in the face of certain troubling films, we can continue to address the faultlines in our national culture, albeit in more indirect ways. I learned this lesson all over again by writing a piece for Perisphere, the blog of the Trylon Cinema (for which I volunteer), confronting the Twin Cities' fraught history of radical art and fascist policing.
I had many thrilling (and some less than thrilling) viewing experiences in 2020, and even if they were often confined to my television screen, they served as an important reminder that engaging with great art is one of the best ways to restore faith in the potential of humanity. As such, here is a rundown of my most memorable cinematic encounters of the pandemic year, listed somewhat chronologically. Hopefully it foretells increased activity for Phantom Lightning (and for political mobilization) in 2021.
January 2020: Punishment Park
The Trylon Cinema received a grant that allowed its volunteers to program a film of their choice, offering a brief glimpse into the world of distribution and exhibition. I had the honor of selecting Punishment Park, Peter Watkins' audacious pseudo-documentary from 1971. Little did I know how apt this programming choice would be for 2020.
I first saw the film about twelve years ago, when I started to realize that radical counter-cultural movies were one of my favorite modes of cinema (but knew hardly anything about their full international scope). I had never seen a movie like it: boldly mixing fiction and vérité documentary (much like the Watkins films The War Game and La Commune), Punishment Park is set in Death Valley. A group of prisoners consisting of draft dodgers, radical activists, and anti-police demonstrators are given a choice: they can escape prison by surviving a race across the desert, during which they're pursued by gun-toting, trigger-happy cops and military officers. If they reach a predetermined location alive, they avoid jail time. But the odds are stacked against them: even though the prisoners receive a head start, the forces of law and order are equipped with money, weapons, vehicles, food and water—benefitting from the system as they do in real life.
Largely unscripted, the film proceeds in a raw, spontaneous manner: the cast is a motley crew of actors, real-life revolutionaries, and non-professionals portraying roles either similar to or wildly different from their real-life personas. The scenario then plays out according to their preexisting paranoias and animosities, making Punishment Park a bitter, volatile depiction of political conflicts in the U.S. in the early '70s. It's a true masterpiece, one of the angriest films I've seen regarding political divisiveness in the United States (which is now as ferocious as it was during the time of Punishment Park's making, if not more so). Somehow, the film still manages to incorporate a great deal of dark humor (the police officers' breathless tributes to their own weapons are both absurd and disturbingly believable) and aesthetic beauty (thanks largely to its color 16mm camerawork).
But what I'll remember most about this screening (aside from my fumbling introduction in which I tried to explain how this was a formative viewing experience in my late twenties) is an uncomfortable conversation in the cinema's lobby afterwards. I don't think I could say anyone enjoyed the movie. Some admitted they were shaken by it; others said they outright hated it. The racial makeup of the people who responded in anger or indignation could not be ignored. The awkwardness of that post-screening discussion only made me more confident that I had made the right programming decision.
February 2020: Portrait of a Lady on Fire
The last review I posted on Phantom Lightning before my semi-unintentional hiatus, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one of the best films of last year (or 2019, depending on how neurotic you are with release date specifics). It's also a film that demands to be seen on the big screen, its radiant colors and staggering close-ups a testament to the larger-than-life power of theatrical moviegoing.
More than just a passionate historical romance (though it's an exceptionally good one), Portrait of a Lady on Fire is also a study in the representation of character—balanced between naturalism and abstract expressionism—as well as a proudly feminist depiction of the ways in which women band together to subvert patriarchy. (In this film, those bonds of solidarity transcend class barriers; one wishes that were more true of political movements in the 21st century.) I typically hate to throw around the word "classic," but Portrait of a Lady on Fire already has the aura of one (perhaps because it feels like it came out years ago following a never-ending 2020). It also puts pseudo-feminist movies like Promising Young Woman to shame, laying bare the hollowness and insensitivity of attention-grabbing movies that exploit hot-button issues but have nothing significant to say about them.
March 2020: Zombi Child
Aside from sporadic screenings at the Trylon Cinema (which continues to have strict audience limitations and mask regulations in place), Zombi Child was the last movie I saw in theaters in 2020. Its director, Bertrand Bonello, is responsible for one of the most underrated and misunderstood films of the 2010s, Nocturama. Following a gang of young wannabe political terrorists who commit acts of violence and then hole up at a shopping mall, the movie doesn't glorify terrorism (as some people crudely deduced) but lambasts the characters' obsession with celebrity notoriety. It's a stylish and audacious piece of political satire.
Zombi Child isn't as great as Nocturama—in fact, it's more intriguing than it is successful—but Bonello continues to be unafraid to push the audience's buttons. In something of a remake of I Walked with a Zombie, Zombi Child cuts back and forth between Haiti in 1962, when a Black farmer is buried alive by white colonists and resurrected as a zombie (an episode supposedly based on historical fact); and present-day France, when a white teenager named Fanny befriends a young Haitian woman, Mélissa, and then conspires to enlist her family to use voodoo to win back Fanny's estranged boyfriend. This dual storyline is not afraid to be preposterous, usually to pronounced thematic effect: Fanny is guilty of exoticizing and exploiting Haitian culture (and voodoo mystique) for her own selfish ends (an echo of the white colonists' own imperialist attitudes decades earlier). The film is ultimately too scattershot to make much of an impact; by the time Mélissa's grandmother enacts a voodoo ritual, manifesting the appearance of a magical demon, it's hard to know what the film is trying to say about cultural exploitation or how the strands of history reappear in chaotic ways. Regardless, it's never boring to try to decode Bonello's muddled commentary, and it seems more necessary than ever to celebrate artists who embrace the bold and the incendiary.
March-December 2020: Teorema, The Taking of Power by Louix XIV, Death of a Cyclist, The Cranes Are Flying......
...in other words, a bevy of arthouse classics, finally viewed for the first time. As mentioned above, the issue in 2020 wasn't watching a ton of movies, it was finding the motivation to write about them. And the titles/screenshots above are far from comprehensive: last year also granted me the opportunity to watch (either for the first time or as repeat viewings) McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Mikey & Nicky, Akira Kurosawa's Dreams, Taste of Cherry, Dragon Inn, Basil Dearden's Victim, Pedro Costa's In Vanda's Room, and probably others I'm forgetting about.
I don't intend to write about all of these movies (though they're all worthy of in-depth analysis). Aside from a general fusion of formal innovation, emotional resonance, and thematic commentary, they don't have much in common. What unites them in my mind is the way in which they were viewed: on a television, in the midst of semi-quarantine, when the relatively plentiful options of Netflix's DVD-in-the-mail service and various streaming platforms made it possible to catch up on revered international classics. (Yes, I still get Netflix DVDs/Blu-rays through the mail. I'd rather use that arcane service than browse their torturous streaming platform.) Introverted cinephiles face a constant challenge: watching movies on the big screen among a crowd is always the ideal way to experience cinema, but the appeal of staying home and enjoying incredible films in isolation can be hard to pass up. But if the last year of mostly at-home viewing has taught me anything, it's that the journey to a movie theater, the submission of the audience before this colossal rush of images, is worth the occasional annoyance of loud moviegoers, rickety seats, driving, parking, and so on.
Sure, the fantastic movies listed above offered me experiences I won't soon forget. The furious ending of Teorema, with a howl to the heavens embodying the discontent of modern humanity. The disorienting camera movements of Rossellini's The Taking of Power by Louis XIV, one of the best-directed movies I've ever seen. The sweaty, sexy, sinister nightclub scenes of Death of a Cyclist, especially in contrast to the icy-cold corporate boardrooms of that film. The camera spiraling upwards in The Cranes Are Flying, at first signifying the splendor of young love, but eventually symbolizing the ascent of the soul after death. Great cinema is monumental regardless of its viewing format. But I fantasize what it would have been like to see these moments on a screen that overwhelms me, and hope I'll have the chance to witness such images someday.
March-December 2020: John Ford, Brian De Palma, Paul Schrader & John Cassavetes retrospectives
For adherents of the auteur theory, or simply those who believe that an artist's life experiences inform their work, there's something enormously satisfying about tracking a director's filmography in semi-completist fashion. While I can't say I diligently traced all of these filmmakers' careers from beginning to end, my loose retrospectives of the four directors listed above—all titans of American cinema, all distinctly stylistic, all varyingly (and I think unfairly) accused of misogyny—were among the most enlightening viewing experiences I had in 2020.
By now, the name John Ford has become synonymous with classical Hollywood artistry. Stagecoach (which I rewatched this year) built the visual form and genre conventions of the Western, even if Westerns had existed for forty years, practically since the dawn of cinema. The character introduction of the Ringo Kid—the role that made John Wayne a star—is one of the most iconic of all time, a propulsive tracking shot with a glorious Western sky radiant in the background (even in black and white). The thematic centerpiece of the movie, though, is Claire Trevor as Dallas, a prostitute who has been driven out of her previous town by the so-called Law and Order League. Social ostracism and outright violence in the name of law and order provide a concise critique of notions of heroism and villainy in the traditional Western, with Dallas' outcast nature indelibly conveyed in the famous dinner scene (no wonder Orson Welles watched Stagecoach ad nauseam before making Citizen Kane in order to learn film directing). While Stagecoach is maybe most impressive as an example of formal precision, the relationship between the Ringo Kid and Dallas is surprisingly tender: two loners who find solace with each other in the face of a brutal world.
My Ford retrospective also included a rewatch of The Searchers, as fascinatingly rich as ever (the hinted subtext of the relationship between Ethan and his sister-in-law, Martha, was more obvious to me this time); She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, a vivid Western comedy with an uncomfortable amount of casual racism toward the Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians (a supposedly happy ending sees them rounded up and returned to the reservations imposed upon them by the American government); and the excellent My Darling Clementine, with a great performance by Victor Mature as Doc Holliday and stunning black-and-white cinematography by Joseph MacDonald (who deserves to be more widely known).
But the real revelation for me here was Fort Apache (1948), Ford's most overtly anti-imperialist film. In it, John Wayne's Captain Kirby York butts heads with the current commander of Fort Apache, Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda), who abides by outdated codes of white dominion and manifest destiny. Thursday is openly hostile to the nearby Apaches, which proves cataclysmic when an uprising foments among them; York pushes for diplomatic debate with the Apaches' leader, Cochise (Miguel Inclan), but Thursday ignores him. This might be the only classical Hollywood Western I've seen that portrays the humiliating defeat of American forces at the hands of Native American warriors as somewhat victorious; it is Thursday's arrogance and bloodlust that has led them to their slaughter. However, not unlike The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance fourteen years later, a more heroic version of the story is subsequently posited by the American military and perpetuated by Captain Kirby, emphasizing that forces of military and political power ultimately establish what is historical fact (even when it's an outright lie). As often in Ford's films, female characters are secondary, but Fort Apache is careful to linger on the quiet indignation of Thursday's daughter, Philadelphia (Shirley Temple, surprisingly effective), and other soldiers' wives as they watch their husbands depart for battle, implying their relative powerlessness. Ford often seemed more attuned to visual form and character than to political subtext (which is why some of his films seem so subversive and others seem rankly conservative), but Fort Apache is one of the most scathing and powerful Westerns ever made: a critique of white America's military imperialism that continues to be relevant seventy years after it was made.
My mini-De Palma retrospective began with a rewatch of Blow Out, which might be the visual master's most formally astounding movie (that's saying a lot). I'm pretty sure I could revisit the scene in which John Travolta's sound man accidentally records a political assassination once a day for the rest of my life and never get tired of it. Riffing on Antonioni's Blow-Up (a film I've never loved as much as everyone else seems to), De Palma echoes that movie's themes of paranoia and the surveillance state in a uniquely garish way suited for the early '80s: that the ridiculous climax takes place during a political event filled with pomp and circumstance (only to lead to a murder devastating for the protagonist) nails the 1980s' blend of surface appeal and moral vacuity. It's one of De Palma's most complex and successful films.
I also revisited Raising Cain and Femme Fatale (both of which are fun but never seem like more than exceptionally well-made larks) and finally watched one of the best films of De Palma's career: Redacted (2007). It's tempting to say the film was misunderstood, but I think its negative reaction when it was released was actually the result of critics understanding it perfectly: it is one of the most anti-American, anti-military films of the 21st century. Echoing his own Casualties of War (1989), which is excellent but in some ways too sleek to be as explosive as it wants to be, De Palma tells the ripped-from-the-headlines story of American soldiers stationed in Iraq who rape a young girl and then kill her family, passing it off as an act of war. De Palma makes no attempt to hide his outrage at this atrocity, nor at America's military intervention in Iraq in the first place; the sexual violence that permeates the soldiers' environment suggests the War in Iraq as an act of figurative rape. I can't think of another movie of the 2000s that so explicitly denounced our presence in the Middle East, and since most mainstream film critics are part of media conglomerates that have a vested interest in the military-industrial complex, it's no surprise that Redacted was greeted with contempt. That kind of vitriol makes it one of De Palma's best, most necessary, most unshakeable movies.
Another director often aligned with De Palma, in maverick status if not in visual aplomb, is Paul Schrader. (The two collaborated on 1976's Obsession, though Schrader's screenplay was heavily recut, and the legendary artists have had beef since then.) I'll refrain from judging who I think is the superior filmmaker (which is usually a futile quest anyway), but will say that the two Schrader films I watched in 2020—Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) and The Comfort of Strangers (1990)—saw the director at the height of his ingenuity. The concept of Schrader making a biopic of controversial right-wing Japanese writer Yukio Mishima is troubling from the start, even if Schrader was approached to do the project by actor Ken Takakura, and much of the cast and crew was Japanese (including co-screenwriter Chieko Schrader, his brother Leonard's wife). While certainly not shying away from provocation, Mishima in its final form demonstrates the absurdity of prescribing who can and cannot make art about certain subjects due to cultural boundaries: in the end, it's impossible to imagine anyone but Schrader directing this movie. His usual thematic obsession of the intersections of art, politics, religious faith, and suicide (running motifs all the way through First Reformed) commingle in overpowering ways in Mishima, which assaults the audience with sumptuous imagery and wildly richocheting ideas. It's nothing less than exhilarating.
The Comfort of Strangers, made five years later, could be seen as more of a minor work, but it's strange and riveting in some of the same ways. A loveless British couple, Colin (Rupert Everett) and Mary (Natasha Richardson), take a vacation in Venice to rekindle their relationship; while there, they meet a suave, unsettling stranger, Robert (Christopher Walken), who it appears has a violent sadomasochistic marriage with his injury-ridden wife, Caroline (Helen Mirren). Robert is apparently a stand-in for storytellers in general and filmmakers in particular: he regales strangers with anecdotes about his domineering father and his cruel sisters, but these appear at least partially fabricated, attempts to conceal his innate desires for sex and violence. The film is so ambiguous and illogical that it sometimes favors bewilderment over any kind of cohesive theme or story. But sometimes (especially in Schrader's hands) that sort of obfuscation is preferable.
The last of my mini-retrospectives tackled the Cassavetes films Faces (1968), Opening Night (1977), and Love Streams (1984) (as well as Mikey & Nicky, if you count the 1976 Elaine May film in which he starred). I sometimes feel like Cassavetes is an influence you admire more than an artist you adore. Opening Night is ostensibly feminist but paints Gena Rowlands' besieged actress as hysterical and aloof in counterproductive ways; the film really only comes alive in its final twenty minutes, when Cassavetes and Rowlands improvise off each other onstage (and that sudden shift in energy seems to be partially the point). Faces is raw, intimate, rambling, and occasionally very moving, if sometimes too eager to explicitly voice its themes through on-the-nose dialogue. All that said, I unabashedly adore Love Streams, the strangest, most compassionate, most absorbing Cassavetes film I've seen. Here, Cassavetes and Rowlands play a brother and sister, he an irresponsible drunk, she an insecure divorcee. Their relationship (and others in the film) have the messiness and awkwardness of real-life intimacy, and Cassavetes' character is a touching, thinly veiled surrogate for the writer-director himself, in poor health (primarily due to alcoholism) at the end of a long career. But the film avoids being solemn or pitiable; it has an astonishing amount of joy and sensitivity, and you feel like you could spend hours more with these characters. When a spark of magical realism intrudes in the end, with a grizzled mutt morphing into a naked, stoic old man (prompting uncontrollable laughter from Cassavetes), you feel like you're truly seeing something one-of-a-kind.
These retrospectives were more than just ways to analyze the progression of artists over time. With filmmakers you love, once you become attuned to their quirks, their interests, their sense of humor, they become like flesh-and-blood friends whose company you want to return to repeatedly. In 2020, when flesh-and-blood friends were surprisingly difficult to come by in person, that kind of cinematic intimacy (even if separated by a television screen) was more important than ever.
August 2020: An Angel at My Table
One of the best films I saw in 2020 was An Angel at My Table, Jane Campion's biography of New Zealand author Janet Frame. Told over a leisurely 158 minutes, with three different actresses playing Frame at various stages of her life, An Angel at My Table makes good on the untapped potential of most artist biopics: to simply spend time with a complex personality, soaking in their environment and trying to see through their eyes. Her life story is natural fodder for sensationalistic treatment: Frame grew up in poverty in a large family in rural New Zealand, was institutionalized and diagnosed with schizophrenia (though in reality she was just shy and depressed), and wrote her first novels and stories in a mental institution, eventually garnering her international attention and literary acclaim. One can imagine the torrid Hollywood treatment of this story along the lines of Girl, Interrupted, but An Angel at My Table never forgets its primary aim to tell Frame's story with compassion and nuance. For such a potentially tragic tale, the film abounds with tranquility, sweetness, beauty.
This viewing stood apart because, watched at the tail end of an eventful summer, it evoked a sweltering, sun-soaked New Zealand that seemed to emit heat from the screen. Some movies are so immersed in their time and place that you feel like you've disembarked from a long voyage after watching them; this was true of An Angel at My Table in a year in which long voyages could only take place in the imagination. Furthermore, what Campion's film ultimately leaves us with is the life-saving potential of art for creative individuals. Despite the torment that Frame undergoes, the ending is nearly euphoric as the act of artistry and storytelling is what takes precedence over all. I don't pretend to be a writer of Frame's caliber, but for someone who loves writing like I do (like any writer does), An Angel at My Table provides an enormously moving experience. It serves as a gentle reminder, even if the viewer doesn't encounter the tremendous obstacles that Janet does: what you're meant to do is write. So write.
August-December 2020: Four at the Trylon
At risk of sounding like a marketing shill for the movie theater at which I volunteer, most of the theatrical experiences I had in 2020 were at the Trylon Cinema. While it was closed from March through August, the theater reopened at limited capacity and without concessions, with viewers required to wear masks throughout the entire film. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous upon my first volunteer shift in August, and there were undoubtedly times when you'd hear a can of soda or beer crack open during the middle of a screening, openly defying the theater's no-concessions policy. But I'd also be lying if I said the opportunity to watch some great movies on the big screen went unappreciated, with a reasonable degree of certainty that the theater was doing its best to ensure the health and safety of attendees.
It's not that every film the Trylon showed last year was a masterpiece; far from it. The best that I saw was Sorcerer, William Friedkin's brawny, beautiful remake of The Wages of Fear, and I was grateful to have finally caught up with this divisive film on the big screen: the sinister neon color palette, the Tangerine Dream score, the stunning scene in which a colossal truck edges across a rickety bridge during a monsoon, all of these things were overwhelming in the way that only movie theater experiences can be. The flaws of the movie were also more pronounced: the relative disinterest the movie has for its non-American protagonists, the simplistic ending in which stoic male sentimentality is contrasted with heartless greed and violence. But this is a great, nightmarish action thriller and a standout from one of American cinema's boldest iconoclasts.
Before Sorcerer was The Andromeda Strain, which had been programmed before COVID but turned out to be a perfectly cheeky decision for the inaugural screening after reopening. Unfortunately, the best part of Robert Wise's adaptation of the Michael Crichton novel is the opening credits, a marvel of early-'70s paranoia and digital glitch aesthetic. The next two-hours-plus have their tense moments as a team of scientists scrambles to halt a pandemic that may have extraterrestrial origins, but also some sluggish sequences and a feeling of stagnancy (at least until a riveting ending). In the context of our current times, the film is most successful as a tribute to the dedication and ingenuity of scientists, who have the thankless task of keeping people safe even when they flout scientific fact as some kind of moronic proof of their own freedom.
I also watched 10 Things I Hate About You and Roger Corman's The Masque of the Red Death at the Trylon last year—two enjoyable but far from great movies that reminded me of the simple thrill of a night at the cinema, even if the returns are middling. (Back in the day, from middle school through the first couple years of college, I would try to see almost everything in the theater, no matter how bad it looked. I rarely felt like my time was wasted, even if the movie was trash.) I wish I had seen 10 Things I Hate About You when it first came out (I would have been a high school freshman) but there was some pleasure in belatedly enjoying a movie that feels like the last day of school. The Masque of the Red Death, awkwardly pitched between campy horror and arthouse solemnity, is more dull than some of Corman's other thrillers, but its garish colors deserve to be seen on the big screen, with Vincent Price's mellifluous voice oozing at you from the speakers. I'm just now growing more comfortable with the prospect of returning to other theaters (even mainstream multiplexes!), but thankful to the Trylon for keeping theatrical moviegoing alive during my pandemic year. These screenings reminded me of the virtual gallery tours that many museums offered to art lovers last year: the opportunity to witness masterpieces can never be dismissed, but at a certain point it's necessary to step away from the digital screen and reencounter the aura of buildings in which those works were meant to be housed.
November 2020: A Hidden Life
As a sort of epilogue, I'll add one of the most pleasant surprises I had last year: Terrence Malick's A Hidden Life. Even the director's staunchest fans have to admit he's drifted towards self-parody recently; everything from To the Wonder to Song to Song was a meek imitation of Malick's best work. (Many would say that's The Tree of Life; I would opt for Days of Heaven.) Even in the auteur's best films, though, the focus on the metaphysical and apolitical can be aggravating. That's even true of The Thin Red Line and The New World, movies which are tangentially about war and imperialism, even if Malick tends to hold those subjects at arm's length.
So imagine my surprise at A Hidden Life, which unusually portrays political resistance as, sometimes, an act of everyday tedium. The heroes of the film—Austrian farmers Franz Jägerstätter and his wife Fani—are not resistance fighters as we commonly understand them; they do not have secretive meetings in shadowy basements, they don't print pamphlets or sabotage equipment or commit acts of violence. Their courageous act is to make the moral choice not to support Hitler's Third Reich; when Franz is called up by the German Army and forced to take an oath of allegiance to the Nazis, he refuses (with his wife's support). They fully understand that this could mean Franz's imprisonment and death, as well as their ostracism from their tight-knit neighbors, some of whom have already begun spouting white supremacist vitriol, eager to conform to the tides of history surrounding them.
Some criticized A Hidden Life for interjecting Malick's gentle pontifications into a story about resisting Nazism, and it's true that, for much of the film's running time, we don't see evidence of fascism's large-scale atrocities. That's part of the point: the Jägerstätters' resistance isn't some grand show of bravery, but a series of seemingly small decisions, gutsy but inconsequential on the surface, that value ethical commitment over material comforts or conforming to the status quo. A Hidden Life equates its heroes' quiet radicalism with their religious faith—they stay true to their moral compass as a way to remain devout Catholics, believing sacrifice to be a godly pursuit—but I'm more interested in the ways that the film respects how political activism is a lived experience. Doing the right thing doesn't have to be a marvelous gesture committed by Great Heroes of History. More often, it's a minor decision embraced by average people.
While production on the film began in 2016, it feels like A Hidden Life was made for the last days of Trump's presidency and specifically for 2020, the year in which most people felt the need to adopt a moral stance and, perhaps, take action. My faith in political resistance is of the secular variety, but Malick's film is still enormously moving in valorizing the small acts of bravery that constitute historical movements. If these characters can abstain from military service, refuse to take oaths following xenophobic tyrants, and subject themselves to imprisonment and death in order to simply do the right thing, then modern Americans can march on the streets, call their representatives, and contribute in whatever ways they can to demand social justice, gun reform, an end to police brutality, a country as fair and just as we've always pretended it is.