How do we understand faith and prayer, and what of miracles? August 1925 on a Danish farm. Widowed Patriarch Borgen, who's rather prominent in his community, has three sons: Mikkel, a good-hearted agnostic whose wife Inger is pregnant, Johannes, who believes he is Jesus, and Anders, young, slight, in love with the tailor's daughter. The fundamentalist sect of the girl's father is anathema to Borgen's traditional Lutheranism; he opposes the marriage until the tailor forbids it, then Borgen's pride demands that it happen. Unexpectedly, Inger, who is the family's sweetness and light, has problems with her pregnancy. The rational doctor arrives, and a long night brings sharp focus to at least four views of faith. Written by
Demanding melodrama which may reward concentration.
'Ordet', even by Dreyer standards, is a gruelling experience, but in a different way from 'the Passion of Joan of Arc', which, with almost sadistic intensity, thrust the viewer into a visceral pummelling, dragging the spiritual out of us. 'Ordet' is more typically Scandanavian, based on a play by Kaj Munk, a cleric-playwright murdered by the Gestapo during the Nazi Occupation of Denmark.
Its austerity and rigour are reminiscent of Bergman, without that director's lapses (i.e. audience-friendly gestures) into sensation. Like Bergman, Dreyer makes no attempts to hide the theatrical origins of his material - most of the action takes place in austere interiors that even look like sets in their oppressive spaciousness, just as you can hear the boards being trod. There are no harrowing close ups a la 'Passion' here; the camera keeps an unblinking distance throughout, as if we were watching a play in the theatre. The performances make no concessions to film acting, keeping a stern solemnity as they utter their tersely simple dialogue.
So why would Dreyer, one of the five greatest film directors of all time, make such a seemingly uncinematic picture? Part of the answer probably derives from the film's theme, that of faith and miracles. Although the film is as restrained and grim as you would expect from a Scandanavian work, the content is actually full of barely suppressed passion.
The situation and plots are straight out of classic 19th century realist literature - a stubbornly proud landowner refuses to let his youngest son marry a wealthy neighbour because of religious differences; his eldest son goes mad from studying too much theology, hoping to fulfil his father's messianic dreams, under the delusion that he is Jesus, with beard too match, although a joyless, Old-Testament kind of prophet-Jesus; another son has renounced his faith, disgusted with the daily evidence of God's indifference; his pious wife loses her baby in childbirth.
Material ripe for hothouse treatment. And yet Dreyer's reticence never lets it descend into 'Elmer Gantry'isms. The film works as a study in loneliness, in the limited options open to people in isolated outposts made rigid by tradition, religion, culture etc. Dreyer makes a virtue of the theatrical material: his use of doorways, his patterning of entries and exits, his positioning of characters, his calm yet insistent panning all created this sense of something being held in, ready to burst.
The film opens with a brilliantly orchestrated sequence, which introduces the characters, their dilemmas and their milieu, with a simple, yet intricate pattern, as each family member searches for the missing mad brother, a man linked to nature, the light and the dunes. his strictures are hard to take, and yet he is the one with the special knowledge and the miraculous power.
I'm not averse to miracles in cinema. I just found this one a little hard to take (it would certainly never have been produced in a Catholic country - Mother surviving baby? An outrage!). I prefer the way Dreyer turns the rare modern intrusions in the film, the doctor's car for instance, into a scary, almost medieval vision of death in motion; or the chillingly glum view of village life, in a film that keeps implicating the social only to drive it out. I guess you've got to have some knowledge of the theological background.
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