Before I go anywhere with A Hidden Life, the tenth film directed by Terrence Malick in 46 years, and also the sixth in just the last eight years, I must remind you all that I am a fanboy incapable of anything like the proper objective distance from this director and his work. When the critical word came down that A Hidden Life was a return to form after the very weird experiments Malick has made in the last decade, I was immediately struck with disappointment: the thing is, I really like that 2015's Knight of Cups and 2017's Song to Song were amorphous and plotless and characterless stories about fundamental emotional and spiritual states rather than psychological states. They are among the only attempts by any filmmaker in the 2010s to find something new to do with the medium, both narratively and stylistically.

Imagine my delight, then, that A Hidden Life is by no means a repudiation of those experiments, or a return to the cozy safety of straightforward storytelling (as though Malick had ever cranked out boring, run of the mill stories). It is a culmination: certainly of Malick's work in the 2010s, but also of everything he's been up to since ending his 20-year retirement  with 1998's The Thin Red Line. For that is the previous Malick film that A Hidden Life most closely resembles in some ways: a film set during World War II, substantially about the memory of a domestic life serving as a contrast to present misery. It's based on real history, the life of Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), a farmer living in St. Radegund, Austria, who remained vocally opposed to the Nazi regime after the Anschluss, and refused to swear loyalty to Hitler after being conscripted for the second time in1943. He did this in the absence of any support from his community or his church; he did this knowing that it caused pain to his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner), whose deeply held religious faith was his moral inspiration in the first place. He did this because of his conviction that to swear loyalty to a profound evil, even if he kept his fingers crossed and later declared backsies, would be a compromise of his conscience and a denial of his God that he would never be able to recover from. For three hours, the film ponders this.

In truth, I don't quite know what to make of A Hidden Life's spirituality. Jägerstätter was a devout Catholic; so much so that he was beatified by the church in 2017. But this is not a Catholic film: like all of Malick's work, it finds God not in dogma and ritual, but in existing within the world and remaining alert and alive to its rhythms, sounds, lights, and textures. Or, if you want to take the snitty route, in twirling around in fields. Which, sure, plenty of twirling happens, and all the other things that people complain about as the director's aesthetic tics too. The most extreme of these is that cinematographer Jörg Widmer (who has been a camera operator on every Malick film since The New World in 2005) has used a wide-angle lens on, I think, every single shot in the entire film, giving the whole thing an aquarium-like aura, in which the subject of the shot (generally either Franz or Fani) is crushed forward the center of our view while the entire world seems to bend around behind them in a giant bulb. It's an aesthetic of (literally) wide-eyed amazement at the beauty of everything from the grandeur of the Austrian mountains - the film was mostly shot in the Italian Alps - to the way that dirt shifts when you scratch at it with your bare hands. And in the film's second half, after Franz has been locked away in the Nazi prison where he will be badgered and harassed and threatened, it is an aesthetic that emphasizes the emptiness and inhumanity of that prison by making it seem to swallow up the whole world with its damp greyness, an equal and opposite force to the greens and blues of the mountains. But there's also a kind of visual richness to it, the incongruity of beautiful touches in the worst place warming the film with the sense that for a man of Franz's nobility and commitment, God is present in all places at all times.

Even more than the way it's shot, though, it's how the film was edited (by Rehman Nizar Ali, Joe Gleason, and Sebastian Jones) that marks this out as a late Malick film. The fluid, associative editing that has been refined in every one of the director's features, but reached its fullest expression as the primary structuring strategy for Song to Song, has been brought back in a calmer form here, with the film consistently cutting scenes together as a combination of moments with their immediate past and immediate future blurring together. It's basically like the entire movie is made out of tiny sequences of cross-cutting, creating a murky sense of chronology in which everything is simultaneously taking place in the present. It matches very well with the wide-angle lenses; the sensation in both cases is that the movie is trying to present everything all of the time, bombarding us with more of the world than we can possibly absorb.

The film's highly expressive style is its inheritance from everything Malick has written and directed in the years since and including The Tree of Life in 2011; it combines this with the naïve moral philosophy of everything he wrote and directed up to and including that same film. The whispered aphorisms that have been a mainstay of the director's work are back in full force after disappearing somewhat from his late run of films. In this case, the words we hear Franz and Fani murmur towards each other during their separation are based on letters they wrote to each other, and there is as a result something more grounded and communicative in what they say than there are in the free-floating ideas of a Tree of Life or a Thin Red Line. This is maybe because A Hidden Life has more direct, immediate stakes (it is also possible that this part of what causes it to have those stakes); rather than a story of figures out of time, lost and crawling their way towards a grace that they hope exists, this is story of two people at an exact moment in history, faced with a specific crisis, trying to work their way around it. It is a film that is particularly focused on what is right and wrong, not on more diffuse questions of knowing and being.

Not that those existential questions are absent from A Hidden Life, though it ends up being more didactic than Malick's other films. Which is an extremely relative claim to make (this isn't some kind of lecturing message movie by any means). The film's subject is a man grappling with his principles, and portraying that grappling requires a certain degree of talking them out, generally in the form of conversations with people making demands of Franz. A certain level of directness and declaration are inevitably going to be a part of that. This doesn't mean the film is easy, just that it's not so hazy as e.g. Knight of Cups. The film raises a great many insoluble questions, and walks us through the process by which one man tried to solve them, while leaving us plenty of space to think about them ourselves. So it's more leading than the overt shapelessness of Malick's later films, but still mostly interested in offering us a subject for meditation: we are never told what to think, not even really told what to ask, but just shown one way of behaving in a moment of moral crisis, and allowed to, as I said, ponder. It's offering up Franz Jägerstätter as a person, not a martyr, someone making difficult choices and working through the consequences, and retaining his humanity in a world turned deeply inhumane. He is not perfect, as none of us are, but he is good, and that quiet celebration of doing and being good is the warm, rich heart of a sprawling masterwork.