Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Ordet

There are no onscreen cast and crew credits for 1955's ORDET. We are not told that the esteemed Dane Carl Dreyer directed it. There isn't a hint of a whiff of a shred of pomp. This film, based on a play by Kaj Munk, deals with the struggle of faith. A story framework which could understandably be perceived as melodramatic when described is mere business, nuts and bolts to elucidate Munk's and Dreyer's points. The atmosphere is entirely somber and melancholy in the great Scandanavian tradition. The one humorous line in the movie uses Kirkegaard in its punchline.

The story is told deliberately, though the pace of ORDET is not glacial. We are almost immediately involved in the drama of the Borgen family, of widowed patriarch Morten and his three sons: Mikkel, a religious skeptic, Anders, a lovelorn youth, and Johannes, a former seminary student whose studies perhaps have caused enough of the leaving of his senses to believe he is Jesus Christ. Mikkel is married to Inger, a loving and supportive bride with two young daughters; a third child is due any day. Morten hopes it will be a son.

Anders is in love with Anne Petersen, daughter of Peter, the local tailor. Peter does not approve of Anders or the entire Borgen farm as he feels their faith in God is merely lip service, not genuine. The stage is set for perhaps a Shakesperian tale of warring families. Morten arrives at the Petersen domecile to discuss the dilemma. The two men discuss their misgivings with each other. Morten feels that Peter's rigidity has choked the joy out of him, that his somber demeanor belies the joy of knowing God. There are many miserable Christians out there.

The viewer might say both Peter and Morten are unrepentant in their refusal to acknowledge each other's points of view. Why are there so many denominations? There is one word of God, but the interpretations of it are countless, often shaped to fit one's comfort. Mikkel is a good person, caring and human, but apparently isn't so sure about the Divine. The characters in ORDET seem adrift in either strict ritual or a more aimless, benign form of God acknowledgement.

But there's also Johannes. Was it merely the young man's immersive studies that lead to a madness so deep and profound that he believes he is the son of God? Are Dreyer and Munk insinuating something else? Maybe God is using Johannes as a vessel to remind those who've lost their way (read: everyone else in the village). Johannes will continue to hover around as his sister becomes gravely ill as she tries to deliver her baby. The doctor does his work, crediting science for every step. The family will wait and acknowledge. Johannes asks all to believe in miracles. Only Inger's older daughter will listen, though she also wishes her uncle would at least tuck her into bed.

By the amazing climax of ORDET, a miracle does occur. It is quite stunning and powerful, even to my cinematically jaded eyes. It must have been positively overwhelming to 1950s audiences. The final scene is a culmination of the film's many themes regarding faith in what one cannot see. Who among His believers (especially in the face of blinding tragedy) truly believes that God can engineer events that science alleges to debunk? When the flesh is pushed to the fire, even the most devoted may wilt. Those who don't, outcasts like Johannes, are deemed insane. Even Christians' resolve to acknowledge the Divine will often fail if things aren't logical.

ORDET would be perfect viewing for mixed company, believers and empiricists alike. I could imagine that someone might consider my previous paragraph and then say, what about someone like Harold Camping? Remember him, the guy who predicted that the Rapture would occur this past May? Wasn't God using him? How can we tell who is genuine and who is a crackpot? ORDET does not answer, but rather shows the beauty and power of undiluted faith, even if it is through a character many would consider a blasphemer.

I have read reviews from folks who were Christians and others who were agnostics or atheists; most found ORDET to be a beautifully rendered meditation on the power of unwavering faith. Dreyer challenges the viewer at every turn, holding a mirror to every audience member, reflecting our mores and inhibitions in his and Munk's characters. The director moves the camera deftly around rooms, sometimes ominously, other times with anticipation. Dreyer creates the cinematic out of what is essentially static, but I also felt he preserved the theatrical origins as the actors' line readings and posture evoked the excitement of seeing a live production. How rare, to succeed in both regards.

ORDET is a bona fide classic that will certainly be a personal experince for most viewers, regardless of their spirtual convictions. Regardless of that, there's little denying the sheer power. Especially that final scene.

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