in Criterion Month

Ordet (1955)

That’s right. Here I am, once again writing another Criterion review on the 4th of July, as is the (unintentional) tradition. Also, once again I’ll probably be a little too preoccupied with just getting through finishing this review in the hopes of being able to enjoy this leisurely Tuesday. Which is, of course, a little unfortunate, since of all the films I’m reviewing this Criterion Month, Ordet has the most critical esteem, as it has routinely placed pretty high on the Sight and Sound list, coming in at #48 in the latest iteration. Though honestly, even if I wasn’t slightly distracted while writing this review, I probably wouldn’t be able to do this film justice, as it’s deserving of its reputation, full of weighty themes and deliberate seriousness that demands to be reckoned with.

Based on the 1932 play by the Danish playwright and Lutheran pastor, Kaj Munk, Ordet is a story about various members of the Borgen family going through different crises of faith. Morten (played by Henrik Malberg), the patriarch of the family, prides himself on having built up his family’s prosperity on their farm despite being cast out by the orthodox church in their village. His eldest son Mikell (Emil Hass Christensen) is happily an atheist, and his wife Inger (Birgitte Federspiel), is expecting a child, though there are complications with the birth that put a strain on the family, to put it lightly. The youngest son, Anders, is smitten with the daughter of a shoemaker who is a member of the town’s orthodox church, who doesn’t care for the Borgen’s casual approach to religion and therefore disapproves of the courtship.

Then there’s Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye), who sees himself as the second coming of Jesus Christ, and wanders the Borgen estate speaking in a stilted daze about his self-proclaimed enlightenment. The other characters mostly look at Johannes as a nuisance, walking around in the background of their conversations, though there’s clearly an element of pity and concern for their middle child. As the film progresses, we see each member of this family wrestling with their faith, including the elder Morten, who still has bad blood with the religious shoemaker who looks down on him. While it’s unclear where each character stands in regard to their faith by the end of the film, they do see a full-fledged miracle happen before their very eyes that at least for that moment brings them together.

The last film I saw by Carl Theodore Dreyer was quite a bit before this, both in the sense that I reviewed The Passion of Joan of Arc during our very first Criterion Month and that this silent film itself was much earlier in the director’s career. I haven’t caught up with any of the Dreyer’s work since then, so obviously there’s a big gap in my knowledge of how he evolved to eventually get to Ordet. But, by the time he got to this film, he had returned to making films in his native Denmark, where he was given a lifelong lease at a movie theater in Copenhagen that resulted in enough profits for him to adapt Kaj Munk’s play, which he had been considering since the ’30s, before Munk was killed by the Nazis during their occupation of Denmark.

I mention my personal gaps in Dreyer films between Joan of Arc and Ordet because clearly his style had evolved since then. While Dreyer’s knack for lighting and composition is apparent in both films, the framing and editing he uses in both films are quite different. Joan of Arc is known for its abundant use of close-ups and intense editing, used to give an unflinchingly visceral portrayal of this martyr being put on trial. Ordet, on the other hand, uses a lot of long takes, giving the actors plenty of room to breath while also capturing the essence of a stageplay, but without feeling constrained by its material. Meanwhile, I’m not sure there’s a single shot that could be considered a close-up, though the medium close-up that serves as the film’s Criterion box art is about as close as we get to these characters faces, and even that’s in the most emotionally charged moment of the film.

Otherwise, Dreyer’s camera lets the actors drift in and out of the frame as they wrestle with each of their own religious quandaries, while the camera is often subtly panning around the different rooms of the Borgens’ house. It’s in these long takes coupled with the three-dimensional sense that the camera gives us that Ordet feels like much more than a stage adaptation. This is because the film’s exquisite compositions hold your attention, even if there is an inherent slowness that can make the film a bit difficult on top of the weighty subject matter.

Speaking of the film’s subject matter, it does undeniably bear some resemblance to The Passion of Joan of Arc, in that it is very much a movie about people wrestling with their own interpretation of God’s will. It also happens to have a character who sees themselves as being possessed by the Holy Spirit more or less, though in this case, it’s much more uncomfortable, as a prophet taken in a modern-day context just comes off as having some sort of mental illness. Despite this, I would say the film’s ultimate stance on Christianity is complicated, but still feels more in the pro column, as it never judges any of its characters for whatever level of loyalty they have to their faith, though most of these characters tend to be pretty religious by modern standards.

It’s not hard to see why Ordet has remained a favorite among film critics and directors but also isn’t quite accessible enough for even casual film history nerds to be all that familiar with. The art of the long take has been especially pronounced in the last few decades of art-house filmmaking, and Ordet is certainly one of the early pioneers of this, especially by employing it with a sense of existential dread. It feels a lot like a precursor to the work of Ingmar Bergman, whose films that came out slightly after this would take on a much more religious and ponderous tone, filled with the kind of sober conversations that take place over the course of Ordet.

While we will be seeing some Bergman films over the course of this Criterion Month, I am glad to say that my next movie won’t be remotely that heavy. As much as I enjoyed The Life of Oharu and Ordet, they did feel a little like the cinematic equivalent of eating your vegetables (or as John would say, “like homework”), so I’m looking forward to a little vacation from existential dread.