Sunday, December 29, 2013

Sight & Sound Sunday: Ordet (1955)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 Poll Rank: #24 (tied with In the Mood for Love)

It just seems appropriate that, right in the middle of the end-of-year holidays, this feature would take a look at Danish directer Carl Theodor Dreyer's religious epic Ordet. The 1955 Gold Lion winner at the Venice Film Festival doesn't have much in the way - the events that connect the various parts are youngest son Anders Borgen's (Cay Kristiansen) desire to marry Anne (Gerda Nielsen), the sectarian daughter of a cobbler (Ejner Federspiel), and oldest son Mikkel Borgen's (Emil Hass Christensen) wife Inger (Birgette Federspiel) having complications with her third child, ultimately losing both the child and her own life. Meanwhile, patriarch Morten Borgen (Henrick Malberg) deals with his middle son Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye), who went insane studying Kierkergaard - surely anyone who's studied philosophy can relate - and now think's he's Jesus Christ.

It's hard to examine the film's religious themes without examining Dreyer himself. Much like Martin Scorsese would do throughout his career, Dreyer seemed to be drawn to topics of faith. This isn't terribly surprising, as Denmark has embraced the Lutheran church as it's state religion (it should be noted, though, that today's Danish don't consider themselves terribly religious) and it's easy to imagine the illegitimately-born Dreyer finding solace in faith. For most of his career, he worked on the screenplay to an epic retelling of the life of Jesus Christ, but he could never find the funding to make it a reality. His most well-known films, The Passion of Joan of Arc (to be covered in a later edition of this feature) and Vampyr, both dealt with how good and evil are in constant conflict.

It's not surprising, then, that Dreyer would be drawn to "Ordet," a stage play by martyred (by the Nazis) pastor Kaj Munk. There are four different religious perspectives present among the various characters, and the film never really settles on any particular one being "correct." Despite the rather overtly Christian ending - Inger is miraculously raised from the dead, and previously agnostic Mikkel declares his belief in God - Dreyer's film is more interested in exploring the nature of faith itself, using four different characters as windows into the various outcomes that can result from belief.

First, there's Morten. Morten is a solemn man of faith, pious, humble, and unassuming. He is the average person of faith: he knows what he believes, wishes the same for his children, but ultimately doesn't push too hard to convert anyone. Peter, the cobbler, is the extremist. He uses his interpretation of faith as a means to bully Morten when the latter comes to him on behalf of Anders. His faith has been radicalized, used as a means of separating himself from "lesser" society and affirming his holier-than-thou attitude. These two men's faiths are contradictory: one is humble, the other proud.

Similarly, Mikkel and Johannes are presented as spiritual opposites. Mikkel is the agnostic, the non-believer. For him, religion is a fool's errand, and he sees no reason to start believing now. On the other hand, Johannes is driven to the point of delusion: his madness has brought him to believe that he is Jesus Christ himself. Though Dreyer never underlines this point, he presents faith as a kind of madness through Johannes. Johannes wanders into various scenes of the film, giving sermons on morality to anyone who is present. This makes it more interesting in the end, when the two meet in the middle: Mikkel professes his belief (though not necessarily in the Christian God, just a higher power) and Johannes breaks from his madness.

Through Ordet, Dreyer delivers a film that is deeply religious without ever subscribing to a particular point of view. Instead, he uses the film as an opportunity to explore the various meanings of faith, and how religion can be both constructive and destructive. In Ordet, he provides the template for how to cinematically discuss faith with nuance and respect.

On the next "Sight & Sound Sunday:" L'Atalante (1934)

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