Friday, August 8, 2008

Review – Ordet

August 9, 2008

Ordet – the Netherlands, 1955

In this world of cosmetic surgery, of incredibly realistic special effects and make-up artists that can turn a normal actor into a being from another world, of individuals jaded by hucksters and divisive sermons, would the average person recognize the second-coming of Jesus? Or would they react the way the Borgen family in Carl Theador Dreyer's Ordet does when one of their own begins to proclaim himself Jesus of Nazareth, by referring to him as “27 and incurably mad” and keeping him under constant surveilance? It’s not an easy question, yet it’s not hard to see how the Borgen’s came to the conclusion they did. As Ordet begins, Johannes Borgen (an unforgettable Preben Lerdorff Rye) has just walked out of his house on a clear morning in 1925. Draped in a long cloak reminiscent of the one popular movies and paintings often depict Jesus wearing, Johannes hikes to the top of a hill, stands with his arms outstretched, and delivers a sermon, perhaps to the residents of a town below him. “Woe unto you, hypocrites,” he begins. It is the start of a speech in which Johannes refers to himself as the reborn Christ, while speaking in a slow, haunting delivery and staring ahead of him as if in a daze. Perhaps even more unnerving to his family is his habit of entering a room and suddenly delivering a quote from the Bible or explaining why he cannot perform any miracles anymore. The family’s confusion and frustration is understandable.

If that weren’t enough, the town is split theologically between those who believe that life is to be cherished because of the existence of God and those who believe that one must sacrifice and suffer in order to obtain the happiness that dying and going to heaven offers. This rift causes such bad blood that two fathers, Morton Borgen (Henrik Malberg in a great, sympathy-enducing performance) and Peter Peterson (an equally strong Ejner Federspeil), utter phrases such as “birds of a feather” when justifying their objections to a union between the two families. They also belittle the other’s faith with words like “disbelief,” “delusion,” and “detest.” They do these things in the name of their faith. Moreover, in doing so, they inadvertently support Johannes’ contention that people live in “houses half-built.” They believe in their faith so strongly that they have become intolerant of anyone whose belief differs from their own. Witness the conversation between the two fathers to see how deeply their faith impacts their lives. It is both beautiful and frightening at the same time.

The Borgen family, Morten, Mikkel, Anders, and Johannes, is held together partly by Inger, Mikkel’s wife (well played by Brigitte Federspeil). Whether it’s gentling nudging Morten toward accepting his son’s wish to marry the tailor’s daughter, Anne, keeping her husband’s spirits up when they are low, or trying to arouse sympathy for Johannes, she displays a dignity and a faith that many of the other characters only say they have, but not even she can accept the possibility that Johannes may be who he says he is. However, as tragedy creeps closer, that possibility becomes of utmost importance.

Ordet ends with more questions than answers. Is Johannes who he claims he is? Does he really see what he says he sees? How does what has transpired affect the faith of the residents around them, and what are the long term ramifications of what has occurred? Like many questions involving faith, none of these may ever be answered satisfactorily, and because of that, Ordet is likely to haunt viewers for some time after they watch it. If Johannes is the second-coming, what does that mean for the future of mankind? If he is not, how is it that he knows what he knows or can do what he does? It may be just a movie, but it is one that is difficult to shake. As the credits roll, we are left a bit emotionally drained but certainly wanting more. (on DVD from Criterion Collection)

4 and a half stars

*Ordet is in Danish with English subtitles. It is available as part of the Criterion Collection’s Carl Theodor Dreyer box set.

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