Introducing in a narrative flashbacks, fragments of dreams, partially remembered scenes has always been part and parcel of cinema. Examples abound. Look at classic films. The childhood sled scenes in “Citizen Kane” are indispensable. As is the famous flashback explaining the Gregory Peck character’s trauma in “Spellbound.” The process works, when it is used within reasonable limits. When repeated endlessly, as it is today, it sometimes requires a serious effort on the part of the viewer to put together the pieces strewn throughout the narrative.
Case in point, Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women.” Lovely as it is, with superb acting, wardrobe, nineteenth-century homes and way of life, it swings back and forth, nonstop, with scenes that sometimes give the impression of lasting a few minutes. The saga of Jo and her sisters, their dealings with their suitors, relatives, their travels to Europe give the impression that the director gave as instructions to the editor to mix all images as thoroughly as possible, give them a big shake, and stick together haphazardly whatever comes out. Still a film not to be missed but keeping up with the story line is tiresome.
Same problem, even more pronounced, with Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life.” Back and forth and more of the same during the excruciatingly long story of a brave conscience objector living in Austria during WWII who will not, definitely will not, pledge allegiance to Hitler. Not that his staunch attitude, stressed time after time, will change by an iota the unfolding of those terrible years, and the Austrian mountain scenery where this man lives with his family is certainly lovely but over and over? And back to beginning, to middle, to end, and off again? I have always found Malick’s supposedly profound philosophy of life more “Metaphysics 101” than meditation as he may have ingurgitated more lessons than he could properly chew, but he’s an able director and his films remain somewhat interesting. Still, this one, which received an ovation at Cannes and sterling reviews, would have greatly benefited from a half-hour cut, at least, and some chronology allowing to see how the story of this stoic farmer unfolded, taking him to his sad end (featured image: still from “A hidden life”).