Ordet (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1955)

My erection was THIS big last night.  Thanks, Cialis!

In his Great Movies article, Ebert says that it’s at the point where Morten and Peter, the two old Hatfield/McCoy, Montague/Capulet-like patriarchs of their respective families of differing dogmatic sects of Christianity in a small farming community, sit down to air out their differences in the wake of Peter turning down Morten’s son Anders’ request for Peter’s daughter’s hand in marriage, that “the film has taken its grip.  We will not be able to look away again until the end, and we will think of nothing else.”  Having wisely waited to read this article until after watching the film after I made the mistake of reading first with another film, resulting in my high expectations being dashed, I was stunned at how Ebert’s reaction matched my own to a T, for at this scene, where Peter quite literally wishes death upon Morten’s in-labor and gravely ill daughter-in-law so that Morten can see the light of fundamentalist Christianity and Morten proceeds to tell Peter to go to hell, a lightbulb went on in my head, and where I was bored before, at this point I was riveted. Before this point, I was bored to death. Nothing but people walking slower than the mad son Johannes speaks (I was particularly amused when the doctor was adamant that they must act quickly to save the pregnant Inger’s life, and then proceeds to walk slower than molasses to go get a tool for that life-saving procedure 😆 ) (and Johannes speaking his prophecies believing himself to be Jesus = ), people discussing theological issues all philosophical-like as if they’ve never actually discussed such things before even though they’ve lived under the same roof their entire lives, and these people speaking such things while staring off into space, like…

eye contact, people!   Seriously, they might as well be drooling with how catatonic they look while discussing such lofty issues as how prayer can only work when true faith is attached, or whether miracles are possible, or anything else God-related. In other words, God, God, God, God, God. Bored the hell out of me, like a poor man’s Bergman.

But then, once the two patriarchs take off the gloves and do the ultimate no-no, insulting each other’s religious beliefs, shit gets real. The movie’s no longer a series of plotless, mindnumbing philosphical/theological lectures that you’d hear in a seminary or a college course, but a real place with real people rather than Dreyer’s personal religious mouthpieces, with a very real, very serious issue at stake, as the life of the Borgen family’s beloved Inger hangs in the balance. The long night as the doctor works on Inger and the family waits is long and drawn out in agonizing detail and suspense, and the dread of the family is completely palpable. As Inger’s husband Mikkel stays by her side, Morten paces and wrings his hands, and the mad Johannes laments that nobody will listen to his prophecy of Inger’s death and resurrection as his little niece believes him and tries to comfort him (depicted in an impressive shot as the camera does almost a full 360 around the two, the little girl holding Johannes with warmth but also nearly sexual and incestuous implications. Very breathtaking, very sweet, somewhat disturbing scene). Suddenly, these peoples’ lives aren’t an aimless series of religious arguments, but entirely centered on this one important event, so that all the boring, lifeless discussions before now have a context and a specific event to attach all those implications to. Even if my non-religious ass considered the ending complete hogwash and ‘what-the-fuck’-esque (Dreyer may’ve used the G-word as often as Bergman did, but that’s where the similarities end.  Dreyer’s film is to faith as any one of Bergman’s is to atheism), the combination of a lack of any type of musical score, amazingly low-key and unobtrusive cinematography, and real smiles and real tears where once there was stiff acting on par with a medieval morality play, made the second half of this film equally joyous and devastating. Every conceivable human emotion is in these 45 or so minutes of cinema…and that’s just after a first viewing where I was zoning out like crazy for the duration of the film’s first half.  I can’t begin to imagine how much more rewarding a rewatch will be, and it just goes to show that I’m probably not giving the first half the credit it deserves…after all, how could I be so riveted in the second half and care so much about what happens to these people if the first half didn’t somehow do its job perfectly?

My favorite scene in the film, lasting no more than a minute or two, involves a bishop and the doctor sitting on a couch, amiably and intelligently discussing what contributed more to a minor miracle that has just occurred, the bishop’s prayer or the doctor’s skill as a physician (asking Morten to settle the debate, the old man pridefully sides with the bishop and asserts that faith and prayer did it. Although I myself am not at all religious and therefore couldn’t completely buy into this film’s subject matter, seeing the previously despair-ridden and shellshocked Morten have his faith reaffirmed in this moment was incredibly rewarding). As far as I can remember, of all the moments of religious debate and discussion in this film, this was the only one in which the participants actually made eye contact and were actually speaking, you know, normally, and it really made me think about the role of faith, if any, in an increasingly secular and science-driven world.  My only disappointment when this film was over was that the ending seemed to try to put a single, authoritative answer to this question, when moments like the thought-provoking yet satirical and darkly funny argument between Morten and Peter, two sides of a dogmatic coin, as well as Morten’s later embracing of faith after a seeming miracle, argue both against and for organized religion respectively.  Hell, the proclamations of Johannes alone can be read either way, as his insistence that prayer must be infused with faith to be effective rings true by film’s end, while the humorous way he speaks can be read as an easy criticism of religion.  This film was rife for a deep consideration of organized religion and faith, and really does seem to weigh both sides of the argument, but I would’ve at least wanted some ambiguity by the time it was over.  Still, it’s pretty ironic that when similar discussions about the use or lack thereof of faith between, say, an old man and his daughter-in-law, or a father and son, or a mad uncle and his inquisitive niece, were stilted and artificial, the one between a bishop and a doctor, quite literally the archetypes of faith and science, turned out to be the most believable and grounded in reality.


3 comments so far

  1. Michael Corleone on

    I think Ordet its a “difficult” movie. When I have seen the film for the first time I was little bit downbeat when its finished. But the second time when I saw it I was a man, not a boy. So my opinion is that Ordet have al the sides of life. I mean faith its a serious pioce of life. I don’t have put faith and religion in the same bag, for me they are so different like the day and the night.
    8.5/10 its fair.
    Have a nice day.

  2. L. on

    You’re forgetting that the ending doesn’t actually argue for organized religion. As I see it, organized religion is portrayed in a wholly negative light throughout the film, while faith in something science cannot fully explain is the real issue at stake. That is what the ending is about: Personal faith. Faith doesn’t have to mean that you believe the church’s — or any other religious community’s — “version”, “interpretation” et cetera of God. As I see it, the religious meeting in the film is looked upon as silly, as its leader (Peter?) thinks he has a monopoly on a vision of what God is like (like the church has claimed to have had), telling Borgen that if he doesn’t care to join him, he’ll go to hell. This is silly, and that’s what the film tries to tell us: we need to decide for ourselves what God is. Nobody else can do this for us.

    Besides, I find the ending ambiguous — the film doesn’t explicitly tell us that what happened was a true miracle (if we define miracle in its religious sense), only that Morten chose to believe that it was so.

    I should also add that Dreyer himself “wasn’t particularly religious” (I’m citing Jonathan Rosenbaum here; see his essay “Mise en Scène as Miracle in Dreyer’s ORDET”), so there is no reason to believe that he wants to convert atheists and propagate for the church’s beliefs and doctrines.

    I don’t want to criticise you, only inform you that Ordet is perhaps more complex than one viewing allows us to see. I myself found it tedious the first time, but repeated viewings changed my opinion and understanding of it greatly. It is truly a remarkably beautiful and dense film.

  3. L. on

    PS: The miracle also helps to undermine organized religion, as it is seemingly the personal faith of Johannes that resurrects Inger. The neighbour watches the miracle, and is stunned, because according to his rigid understanding of divinity, this shouldn’t happen to people that don’t have the exact same faith in the exact same thing as he (such people are to go to hell). The miracle thereby allows us to see that what we’re dealing with is too complex for one person to claim that he understands it “better” than anyone else. Or perhaps it’s just the incompetence of the doctor that caused this mess to begin with — we don’t know.

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