• Mateo Javier Acosta

Form, Faith, and Sincerity in 'Ordet'

Formal excellence and authentic earnestness are, in my experience, infrequently found together in film. Perhaps this is because the great artists have often been motivated by some dissatisfaction with the current state of things, which colored their approach. In film, this often means that characters are either somewhat hapless or not completely deserving of our sympathy. Filmmakers of that ilk aim to discomfort their audiences by reflecting reality to them in a novel way that makes them question the status quo. They lean heavily on disgust, anger, and other negative emotions to accomplish these goals.

I have no problem with this sort of filmmaking. In fact, I strongly prefer it over the opposite, earnestness without excellence, which, devoid of the instincts of a good artist, becomes a wretched, poisonous saccharine sludge which terminates thought and is antithetical to good art.

Nevertheless, the heart is left wanting. So, when a film comes along that I believe truly succeeds on both of these seemingly opposed axes, I latch onto it. I can be entranced by them for days, weeks, or, in some cases, my entire life. Ordet is one of these films. Directed by the renowned Carl Theodor Dreyer, known best for the silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc, Dreyer based this film on fellow Dane Kaj Munk’s play of the same name. In the film, Henrik Malberg (age 80!) plays Morten Borgen, the fatigued, broken-down patriarch of a rural homestead whose faith in God is strained by three sons: one atheist, one who falls in love with the daughter of a theological rival, and one who believes he is Jesus Christ himself.

There is little I can say about this film’s formal qualities that probably hasn’t already been said by someone more knowledgeable and experienced in film than me. Ordet has been analyzed from that angle incessantly by scholars of film forever. What I’m much more interested in is the other half, its authenticity, which is grounded in its primary theme: faith.

The characters of Ordet live in a world where the onward march of supposed progress chips away at the bastions of traditional order. In intellectual circles throughout Europe, under the influence of philosophers like Auguste Comte, who rejected any source of knowledge other than science, atheism and naturalism continue to increase in popularity. Though the transformation of society by these intellectual movements is not complete, they are certainly not absent from everyday life, even for an isolated Danish farmer.

In this society, the religious move in one of two directions. Either they attempt to reconcile the scientist’s naturalism with religious belief, or they turn inward, rejecting the world completely and resigning from any attempt to engage with it. The former view is best represented by the character newly arrived priest, who rejects the possibility of miracles which break the laws of nature (while still carving out an exception for Jesus’s resurrection). The latter view is exemplified by Peter the tailor, who leads a sect of radical, insular Christians and refuses to allow his daughter to marry Morten’s son, Anders, unless they first accept his sect.

Both approaches are inadequate. The priest’s view, while attempting to stay in touch with modernity, is ultimately lukewarm and inadequate. It surrenders to the modern world rather than confronting it and cannot reanimate the dying faith. Meanwhile, Peter the tailor, while leading a living community of Christians, has himself lost sight of the most important teaching of Jesus: love. He is cruel and prideful, even wishing death on families so they might accept his version of Christianity.

Much like Jesus of Nazareth, Johannes (Morten’s son who believes he is Christ’s second coming) is not welcome in his own land. His blasphemous claims are unsettling, even to the audience. Early in the film, it is easy to dismiss him as a sick man enraptured by narcissistic delusions. How else will he be perceived, by a world that is itself sick? What does it say about a Christian society when their faith is so weak they treat a man repeating the teachings of their acknowledged savior as insane?

The film could easily end on this point, resting comfortably knowing that it has made its point about the hypocrisy and superficiality of many Christians. Thankfully, the film does not stop there. It does not give up on its characters or cast them aside for their weakness. Rather, in its most triumphant point, it draws them together. What began in bitterness ends in love. And in the modern age, with cars, doctors, coffee, and science, the film ends with a truly unthinkable scene: a miracle.