Film Review by Dean Duncan Mar 28, 2015

Danish writer/director Carl-Theodor Dreyer abominated the compromises filmmakers made for the sake of security, a demanding producer, or a passive audience. One of the results of his scrupulousness was that he made fewer and fewer films as the years went on (five features in the last thirty years of his life). During this time Dreyer refined his method of what he called realized mysticism, continuing with his deeply materialistic, almost clinical treatment of the ineffable. Film scholar David Bordwell refers to this as the “foregrounding of the minute,” the most striking and controversial manifestation of which is contained in the increasingly slow pace of Dreyer’s later films. Dreyer remarked that conventional protagonists in conventional narratives are in a rush. In contrast he wished to use time in a way that would makes the viewer feel the weight of its portentous passing, to go beyond the frivolous objectives of films, film characters, film industries. Here is the root of Dreyer’s daring, and his profundity. His attention to detail, and his eventual near glacial presentation thereof, increases in us what Bordwell referred to as “the threshold of significance.” Suddenly, if we’re willing, our eyes see, and our ears hear.

Ordet (or “The Word”) is an adaptation of the martyred Danish pastor and playwright Kaj Munk’s great play. It is a domestic comedy, and very sensitive to the pace and nuance of family life. It is also an explicitly religious story, an exposé of sectarian pride and the cinema’s most unequivocal, most stirring contemplation of the power of God in our lives. Here is the most felicitous example of the increased slowing, the increasing purification of Dreyer’s late work. It also falls into a larger pattern.

In Hollywood, in the late 1940s and all the way through the ‘50s, they were once again making heavy-handed Biblical and Roman-era Christian films. Work like Dreyer’s, or that of kindred French director Robert Bresson, represents a refusal of those films’ facileness. It posits that spiritual pursuit is more rigourous, more internal, and in the end more transformative than the spectacles and their special effects would have it. In this there is a suggestion of the rigours and satisfactions not only of religion, but also what may be an unfamiliar register of religious art. Dreyer’s output is emblematic of its challenges and possibilities: there is directness, intensity, eccentricity, difficulty, multiplicity, universality. As all of these things, combined, contemplated and integrated, remind us of the potential place of the arts in our spiritual lives: an index of and model for cinematic possibility, perceptual opportunity, and even ethical and moral application.

I think that this is the most important film I know.