“Ordet” – First Wednesday movie Dec. 3

Collated from various critic reviews:
“Ordet” (1955, 126 minutes), directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, tells the story of Morten Borgen, a prosperous farmer whose three sons have each laid a particular burden on their father’s shoulders. The eldest, Mikkel, has renounced the religious beliefs of his ancestors, claiming that he no longer has even “faith in faith”; the second, Johannes, has gone mad from too much study and now claims to be Jesus of Nazareth; and the youngest, Anders, has disobeyed his father by pursuing the hand of a young woman whose religion puts her family at odds with the elder Borgen.

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Lean, quiet, deeply serious, the film takes place in winter in Denmark in 1925, in a rural district that has a cold austere beauty. One of the most beautifully photographed films ever made. Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s cinematographic trademarks are all on display: slow, elegant tracking shots and pans; stylized, almost expressionistic lighting; meticulously orchestrated movements and compositions.

The rude, simple sets have the solidity of a universe. The outdoor shots, of searches for the runaway Johannes on the moors, or a buggy ride across the horizon, are almost abstractly beautiful. Much is offscreen: The Borgensfarm sow that has had piglets is much watched, never seen. Peter’s house has only a sign and a doorway. The doctor’s car is established only by its headlights. The grim reaper is seen only by Johannes.

The camera movements have an almost godlike quality. At several points, such as during the prayer meeting, they pan back and forth slowly, relentlessly, hypnotically. There are a few movements of astonishing complexity, beginning in the foreground, somehow arriving at the background, but they flow so naturally you may not even notice them. The lighting, in black and white, is celestial — not in a joyous but in a detached way. The climactic scene could have been handled in countless conventional ways, but the film has prepared us for it, and it has a grave, startling power.

For Dreyer, existence itself has an element of the miraculous, and the wonder of cinema is the ability to preserve it at all. Perhaps no director has a worldview as deeply philosophical, or an aesthetic as perfectly suited to realize it.

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When the film was over, I had plans. I could not carry them out. I went to bed. Not to sleep. To feel. To puzzle about what had happened to me…. The film stands utterly and fearlessly alone.” – Roger Ebert

The strangeness of Ordet is something that no number of viewings will rub off. – Chris Fugiwara, Criterion Collections

What cannot happen has happened, and you are stunned by what you have witnessed. Something changes in you after that. – Paul Auster

Both emotionally and intellectually the picture is hypnotic, and some portions will nail the spectator to his seat. – New York Times

A strange, wondrous and shocking work. Once seen, it’s unlikely to leave you. – Time Out

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There are only 114 shots, each averaging over a minute, only three close-ups, and the film demands and rewards the closest attention. – Observer (U.K.)

A film with a hypnotic, irresistible stare. – Guardian (U.K.)

Tragedy strikes, and petty denominational squabbles disintegrate in Dreyer’s sublime synthesis of humanistic and textual faith, a vision of purity and clarity. – East Bay Express

This is an overwhelming emotional and intellectual experience, thanks both to its subject matter and its austere yet potent presentation. – TV Guide

One of the most powerful and profound films about faith ever made, Carl Dreyer’s Ordet turns a Romeo and Juliet story into a passionately spiritual drama of love and acceptance. – Amazon

Ordet is one of the greatest films ever made. It demands more from us, and has more to give, than almost any other film. It won the Golden Lion in the 1955 Venice Film Festival and the 1956 Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film. In 2012, it was chosen as the 19th greatest film of all time by leading film directors including Martin Scorsese in the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound magazine once a decade poll.

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