Saturday, December 27, 2008

Ordet (Carl Theodor Dreyer)

#34 in the list of the 1000 greatest films of all time

Ordet (directed by Carl Theodore Dreyer) seems to pop up on a lot of people's "greatest films" lists. I'm not exactly sure where I'd first seen it promoted; it may have been Jonathan Rosenbaum's Top 100 or TSPDT's 1000 greatest films. By the time I saw it top Art and Faith's list of 100 most "spiritually significant" films (a list whose definition of "spirituality" is broad enough to encompass the works of David Lynch and Paul Thomas Anderson), my curiosity was piqued. I added it to my NYPL leopac queue a couple of days ago, picked it up from the 96th St. Branch this morning and watched it this afternoon.

The film is set in the religiously austere Danish countryside of the mid 1920's. The Borgen family farm has seen better days, and grandfather Borgen's three sons have each incurred his orthodox wrath. Johannes has lost his mind and believes himself to be Jesus Christ. His glazed look and ghost-like figure constantly haunts the film, tying scenes together with his eerily intoned blasphemies. Borgen's oldest son, Mikkel, has rejected faith altogether, while his youngest has set his sites on marrying Peter the tailor's daughter. Peter just happens to be Borgen's arch nemesis; both Borgen and Peter refuse to recognize each others religious sect. Even Mikkel's wife, Inger, has failed old Borgen, having born only daughters.

The film proceeds at a snail's pace; the dialogue, though at times intriguing, pales in comparison to the unflinching spiritual examinations of Dreyer's contemporary Ingmar Bergman. The camera work is slow and steady; there is only one principle closeup in the film, and it comes at the film's climax. The film, based on a play, also embraces the play's aesthetics; the Borgen home set has the three-wall feel of a stage, not unlike a modern-day sitcom. What distinguishes Ordet from filmed plays and sitcoms is the camera's incessant wandering, swiveling, and panning throughout the space. It all adds up to a slow, challenging experience, and it certainly sowed plenty of doubts in my mind that the payoff would be worth the wait. My wife couldn't take it, and left just minutes before the climax.

Spoiler alert: I'm about to discuss the ending. I realize I haven't given this film much of an enticing description so far, but nevertheless, I highly recommend you experience Ordet on your own before reading any further.

The entire film up to the climax is entirely devoid of the miraculous. Their world appears as our world appears: unrelentingly ordinary. Grandfather Borgen's existence is petty at best; his son Anders becomes little more than a pawn in his spiritual war against Peter the tailor. Mikkel and Inger's existence is simple, but happy, and Anders's and Anne's love, despite the Romeo and Juliet overtones, is actually entirely prosaic. Johannes's insanity is tragic, but explainable.

Inger goes into labor in the second half of the film, and for many reasons, we expect the worst. In the middle of it all, Johannes tells Inger's daughter that he will let her mother die so that he can bring her back to life. After Inger died, I kept thinking to myself, "How hokie would it be if Johannes actually raised her from the dead." I hoped that the film would continue its rejection of the miraculous and end on a brutally realistic note, or that any miracle would simply be the miracle of the ordinary.

And so I was surprised that when Inger rose from her open casket, hugged Mikkel, and wept, I wept too. I learned something about myself. It was exactly what I didn't want, and it was shattering! Even I, an unrepentant atheist, desperately crave a world where miracles are possible. Perhaps we all do. I guess that's what gives religion its seductive power.

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