If Carl Th. Dreyer was not already immortalized in film with his 1928 silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, he certainly earned it by the time 1955's Ordet rolled around. As a study of the spiritual, it surpasses even his terrifying ode to the patron saint of France, though it is perhaps not as powerful. One of the most existential and metaphysical films I've ever seen, if not the outright best, it both tears down religion and asks if we can attain true spiritual enlightenment in this material world.
Now, when I say "tears down" religion, I do not mean an attack on the Church. Dreyer is much too good for that sort of thing, which generally works best with satire anyway. Instead, he crafts a character study concerning two families, the Borgens and the Petersons. Members of these two families will try to link, to the strong objections of other members, and through it all we learn a profound lesson on faith.
The Borgen clan consists of the stern patriarch Morten; Mikkel, the eldest son, an atheist married to a woman named Inger; Anders, who proposed to Anne Petersen; and Johannes, the most devout character in the film. Johannes has gone mad and shuffles around the farm, claiming to be Jesus Christ. Dreyer spends nearly a third of the film letting us get acquainted with these characters. We do not move between them rapidly in a handful of early scenes; rather, we spend time with each, learning about what motivates them before we even learn their names.
When Anders proposes marriage to Anne, he meets opposition from both sides; Morten and the Petersen patriarch, Peter (no, really) both refuse based on their dislike for each other and their unwillingness to link themselves to each other, even if it means denying their children happiness. Why do the two hate each other so? Religion, of course. Peter comes from a more orthodox background, while Morten believes in a God who offers more freedom and joy. When the two butt heads over the matter, Morten slams his rival with the line, "My faith is the warmth of life, yours is the coldness of death." But Dreyer doesn't play to expectations: the truth of the matter is that Morten is every bit as dogmatic as Peter.
What the director seeks to illustrate through these characters is how dogma and faith, though fundamentally unrelated, bleed into one another and dilute faith in the process. Dreyer lets the characters prove this over the course of two hours without ever seeming rushed; just the opposite, it has all the depth of a much longer film. We see all the extremes of faith, dogma and their role in the modern world: Johannes, the most faithful of the bunch, exists totally outside of the world to the point of insanity. Morten and Mikkel have been broken by tragedies and, though Morten still prays, the two suffer from a lack of faith. Only the seemingly minor characters of Inger and her daughter Maren can bridge the gap between Morten and Mikkel's worldly caring and compassion and Johannes' faith.
Tragedy befalls the characters in the film, and it throws the already struggling Borgens into even more chaos. Johannes leaves for a time, shocked into sanity and thus, ironically, forcing him to deal with the greater horrors of existence. Eventually he returns and, though he no longer believes himself to be Christ, one cannot help but think of a second coming. A miracle occurs, yet it seems completely plausible thanks to Dreyer's unflinching realism. This miracle certainly gives the film an upbeat bent, but thankfully it does not presume to contain all the answers.
What makes Ordet stand out as perhaps the finest film to ever deal with the subject of religion is that it treats the subject of the supernatural as a normal part of existence. Dreyer, who never claimed to be that big a believer, crafts a world in which faith and spirituality are not shuffled into facile psychology. He does not mock these characters for their faith, nor does he exalt them. He presents it all so perfectly that, even though Johannes is the only character who still believes in miracles, we are not at all fazed when one does occur.
Christian groups complain that no one makes movies that cater to them. Sadly, they want one that adheres totally to their "morals" and they end up with offensive drivel like Fireproof. But films like The Last Temptation of Christ and this, which deconstruct the facets of religion and find that nugget of faith more beautiful than anything man or nature could ever create fall by the wayside. I would strongly recommend this film to any church group, and not just Christians, though Dreyer uses the word Christian at every turn to describe these faithless characters (I don't find this to be his way of attacking Christianity, though); it's one of the few films that will make someone truly stop and think about his faith and walk away with renewed vigor. Plain and simple, this is an existential masterpiece.