Monday, April 9, 2012

Ordet


On an Easter Sunday, with a quiet afternoon to myself while my family slept peacefully, I perused the various streaming websites for a film about resurrection. The theme felt appropriate, the day being Easter and all. Film after film flickered by on the screen, until a single title captured my eye: Ordet. Where had I heard of this film before? Ah, the Arts & Faith Top 100 films. Ordet was the leading film for many years on that list, and still remains prominently in the top 3 as a leading model of the collision of art and faith in film.

Ordet is a quiet and simple film, with long takes of scenes that take place mostly indoors. On the Borgen family farm, three brothers and their elderly father navigate differences in faith. The eldest, Mikkel, is a kindly skeptic, who claims he doesn't have "faith in faith." The middle son, Johannes, has gone a bit insane from his theological studies--particularly with the writings of Soren Kierkegaard--and now claims to be the second coming of Jesus Christ. The youthful Anders doesn't share his brothers' theological musings, focusing his attention on a romance with young Anne, the tailor's daughter. The patriarch of the farm, Morten, has an established Christianity; he is the patron of the local church and entrenched in his faith. Mikkel's pregnant wife, Inger, lovingly serves others out of a deep faith in Christ. Life is quite ordinary for these folks; Inger is pregnant, Anders wants to marry Anne, the sow on the farm has piglets, etc.

The film moves slowly in the lives of these characters, showing their ordinary conversations and experiences. I found myself initially somewhat bored and sleepy. Johannes is particularly strange, with his rantings and long trance-like musings on the sayings of Christ. Then Anders approaches Peter the tailor to ask for Anne's hand in marriage, and the entire film shifts. Peter turns him down; "you are not a Christian" is his only reason. Anders returns home distraught and shares the news with his father. Enraged at Peter's response, Morten leaves at once with Anders to confront Peter. One can discern that this has been a long-and-coming faceoff between these two men. Morten interrupts Peter's somber prayer gathering and the two have a spirited battle about their respective Christian faiths.

Their specific beliefs are unclear, but one can tell the difference--Peter represents fundamentalism, while Morten has a more liberal faith. It's a debate that has been happening for the length of the past 200 years, and perhaps since the inception of Christianity. Morten claims a faith filled with joy and the present life in Christ; Peter solemnly clings to strict traditions and soul conversations, hoping in the future eternity. Morten finds abundant life now; Peter looks to abundant life in the future. Both arguments are not without their flaws, as Morten was recently doubting his own faith based on the difficulties he has experienced and a lack of answered prayers. Peter comes off as judgmental and critical, trying to convert Morten and Anders to the "true" Christian faith and declaring anyone who doesn't fit within his framework as heretical. The argument is passionate but respectful, until a phone call shifts the tone. Inger is back at home and experiencing some dangerous and painful complications with the pregnancy, and Morten is to return at once. Peter says that Inger will die from Morten's lack of faith, and that he will pray to that end if it means Morten will see the error of his ways. (A conservative claiming natural disasters are God's judgment on liberal believers? Sounds familiar...). Inger's turmoil leads all the characters to a crisis of faith. Pain and suffering have a tendency to bring our heart's longings and convictions to the surface.

I won't go into any more plot details, suffice to say that the final scene brought me to tears. Ordet explores faith from all sorts of angles, with each character bringing their own facet to the conversation. Mikkel has no faith, not even in faith itself. Inger is the embodiment of grace and beauty (much like Jessica Chastain's kindly mother in The Tree of Life), and her faith is grounded by her actions. Anders is innocent and seemingly unthinking about his faith, simply going along with the faith of his father. Morten and Peter have more faith their systems of belief than they do in the God behind those systems (though I imagine that both would vehemently deny this accusation). The new parson in town has the title of faith, but no actual backbone to it, while the cold doctor treating Inger has a firm faith in science and the power of his own two hands. Many of these characters serve as foils to the other, appearing on screen as pairings. The pastor and doctor sit directly next to each other in various scenes; Morten and Peter are side-by-side at the conclusion of the film; even Mikkel and Inger are at opposite poles of faith.

The beautiful irony is that the least likely characters are the ones who embody a Christ-like faith. The mad Johannes is practically dismissed by every other character as a nuisance and a burden. Yet in spite of his lost wits, Johannes has a simple and straightforward faith that Jesus is exactly who He says He is. He is the Savior, the God who answers prayers, the One who can perform miracles and raise the dead. The only one who shows Johannes compassion is Inger's daughter, who wholeheartedly believes that Johannes has the power to raise the dead. Johannes is a mad fool, but he is a fool for God. "For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength."

Faith is a journey of sorts, and Ordet embodies this journey in its very construction. With its slow beginnings, I was plagued by doubt and uncertainty. Was this film really worth my time? Is this actually going anywhere or leading me to anything beautiful and true? Slowly but surely, my uncertainty faded as the characters gripped my affection. All of a sudden, I realized halfway through the film that my emotions were piqued. I found myself unconsciously leaning forward in my seat, longing for whatever would happen next in this fascinating story. Who would live? Who would die? Where would this journey lead us all? By the climactic act, the story of redemption had captured my heart and would not let go. Following Jesus is like that, too.

In a moment of catharsis near the conclusion of Ordet, I wept at the beauty of God's faithfulness. These were faith-soaked tears. It was Easter Sunday, and I believed.

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