Carol Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet is a deeply thought-provoking, spiritual foray into the realms of faith and love. However, it is as much about doubt as it is faith, as much about discord as it is about love. It shows a spectrum that, while irrevocably Danish with its actors and setting (a bit reminiscent of Bergman), still has a universality that correlates to the contemporary world we live in. This later work by Dreyer is deliberate in pace, simple in its misce-en-scene, but the life is breathed into it by the characterizations and a beautifully subtle approach to depicting them.
The story is based off a play by Lutheran Pastor Kaj Munk, which was first performed in 1932. The majority of the tale takes place on a rural farm belonging to aged and bearded widower Morten Borgen. Aside from being a farmer, he is a prominent member of his community and a devout Christian. Now he contents himself smoking his pipe as he has three grown sons and a couple grandchildren.
His first son is happily married to a wonderful woman and mother of two, but he himself is struggling with belief in a God, and he acknowledges lacking faith in such things. His wife continues to encourage him, but he knows that such news will deeply trouble his father.
Johannes, the middle son, began believing he himself was the incarnation of Jesus Christ after deluging himself with the works of the famed Christian existentialist Soren Kierkegaard. So now he goes around spouting off scripture and calling out those around him for their lack of faith. What makes it so mesmerizing is the dazed sincerity behind each word. He truly believes what he is saying.
Finally Borgen’s third boy, Anders, is deeply taken with a girl named Anne from the nearby town, but of course her father Peter is from a different sect, and so everyone knows that neither father would willingly agree to a marriage.
These are the problems that plague the Borgen family, so they are undoubtedly commonplace in any spiritual community. Dreyer depicts it all in very mundane terms but not as unimportant, not without a deft hand and sensitive touch.
There is one scene in particular that comes to mind. The young girl Inger, a namesake for her mother, comes up behind her uncle Johannes and with all sincerity, in her eyes and voice, she begins to ask him to raise her mother from the dead. They talk about it for a time and while they talk pensively the camera slowly makes a spiral around them. Now if this was Tarantino (in Django for instance), he would need to bring attention to his camera and the scene loses all of its impact, because he’s a director who is often about as subdued as a toothache. But with Dreyer there is a sensitivity to his movement that’s gracefully smooth, accentuated by his long takes, with a simple backdrop, and pinpoint lighting.
Between the bickering over Ander’s betrothal and the sudden decline in the condition of the pregnant Inger, there is a lot of soul searching to be done and problems to be parsed through. In a sense, it looks like any life full of conflict, pain, and unforeseeable suffering. It’s all there and it hurts the Borgen family and turns neighbor against neighbor. This film has so many different worldviews and philosophy colliding at once. There are those who are devout in their faith, but their faiths differ. There are those who doubt it all or want cold hard facts. Some have blind faith and others are off-putting with their message. Then there those who seem content in their spiritual lives even though they are not perfect people. So essentially we have almost every iteration or cross-section of society, at least to some degree. It makes for an interesting battleground, but within that, it’s interesting how these characters start to find common ground and build rapport instead of breeding bitterness.
Furthermore, the final moments of the film are so surprising in their sincerity as they are for what actually happens. It’s in a sense wholly unbelievable, but we don’t disbelieve it — in fact, we want it — because we have followed this film thus far. What happened felt so close to home and so the ending, although somewhat unusual, feels right. It’s a strikingly beautiful conclusion to a film that speaks to our doubts, questions about faith, and ultimately our capacity to love and be loved.
This is the sort of film that would probably never see the light of day in Hollywood. It’s either you make God’s Not Dead or something that has no spirituality in it whatsoever. Ordet goes far beyond the depth of such films and it is better for it. I will not say I agree with everything that each character says, but that’s the point, because they all come from different perspectives. The best we can do is come and try to understand what others think so we can move forward from there. But spiritual conversations matter.