Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Word

We saw the Danish film Ordet, which means “the word,” made in 1955 by Carl Theodor Dreyer based on a play by Kaj Munk first performed in 1932. The movie is impressive in part because it embodies a kind of contradiction. It is an art film and, simultaneous, a religious film. It is long, ritualistic in its mode of presentation, yet builds incredible tension. Seen in the right company, it will generate discussion that will last at least as long as the film itself. Ordet is the kind of film best left undescribed to enable those who might want to see it to experience its full impact. It is available from Netflix.

I got to thinking about ritual. Ritual is strongly associated with religious experience at every level, even down to the trivially superstitious: touch wood, black cat, spilled salt. Art film, in my own mind, and any “art” one is tempted to put in quotes, represents the piety of Humanism. It does not contrast so much with traditional ritual behavior as it updates it for elites. For the ordinary folk sentimentality will suffice. In Ordet a kind of tension arises because the technique of Humanistic ritual is used to tell a religious story—straight, you might say. Art films are not supposed to deal with that subject seriously.

Or perhaps the times are changing. I put “Art Film” on Google. The first item that comes up, of course, is the Wikipedia article on the subject. To my surprise the first image shown in that article is a portrait of Carl Theodor Dreyer celebrating his The Passion of Joan of Arc, a 1928 film.

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