The Danish title means “The Word”. Karl Theodor Dreyer’s 1955 adaptation of Kaj Munk’s play, this is the only film I have seen where the plot is merely a device for character development.

Set in a village in Denmark, Morten Borgen (yes, really) is a farmer with three sons, Johannes, Mikkel and Anders. Mikkel and Anders work on their fathers farm cutting reeds, which must be the explanation for their lack of manly physique: there wasn’t a straight shoulder or broad chest among them. Mikkel is married to Inger, who is one of the three chief characters, and in my mind the most redoubtable. Anders is single but wants to marry Anne, the tailor’s daughter. However, the Borgens and the Petersens are of different faiths. This is the vehicle for the the chief plot (for want of a more apposite word), which is the animosity between and the village tailor, Peter Petersen; although animosity implies emotion.

At first I thought the hostility was that between Catholic and Protestant but there were no priests appearing; only the Borgens’ pastor. Then I considered evangelical versus charismatic; while that seemed more apposite, it didn’t quite fit: the Petersen’s coterie believed that miracles still happened but the Borgens didn’t, and the Borgens’ pastor wore an Elizabethan ruff as part of his ministerial attire, giving him the semblance of a dog fitted with a funnel collar to stop it gnawing on a sore.

My third conclusion about the respective faith arose from Borgen’s accusation that Petersen’s faith was mournful with the chill of death about it. That was the moment I decided that the Petersens were Calvinist and the Borgens, Lutheran.

Morten Borgen’s third son, Johannes, has a delusional psychosis that makes him believe he is Jesus. His appearances in the film were regular but thankfully brief: at particular moments of tension or pathos, a 20-year-old Liam Neeson doppelgaenger would shuffle out of his bedroom, utter a verse of the Bible, apathetically exhort people to believe him, complain that they didn’t, and shuffle back in again. If Dreyer or Munk intended that Johannes accurately depict Jesus, then Jesus must have been an effeminate recluse with Asperger’s Syndrome, immaculately groomed hair, a penchant for baggy knitted jumpers, and who spoke in a whiny falsetto that would make Steve Urkel sound like James Earl Jones.

But after Inger dies in childbirth, the psychic shock restores Johannes’ sanity; however, he still has the same iron faith that miracles can happen and that Inger can be brought back from death. Finding the same faith in one of his nieces, he prays and then commands Inger (the “word” of the title) to come back to life.

This final scene, Inger’s resuscitation, is a model of cinematic minimalism. Johannes speaks, and after after a few seconds, Inger unclasps her hands. Mikkel goes to her, and after about 15 seconds she opens her eyes. Her first thought is not of her own return from death (she probably didn’t realise at first she had been dead), but of the child that she died delivering (and who died while being born). In the final moments of the film, as her husband says, We have a second chance at life, Inger murmurs, “Life”, with a track of tears rolling down her cheek.

The rest of the film was marked by the same simplicity but the effect lacked the potency of the finale. The cast all seemed to be drugged with thorazine: tortoises practising tai chi move faster. Every actor stepped slowly across the stage as though the floor might collapse under them at any step. However, Borgen and Anders must have had some amphetamines stored somewhere because in several scenes they seemed unable to stay still. Within one scene a player would sit down, stand up, move to another chair and sit down again. And drink coffee.

If there was a recurring motif in the film, that motif was coffee. Every third scene involved people drinking coffee; never tea. After the Borgens went looking for Johannes, they drank coffee. When Inger tried to persuade Morten to allow Anders to marry Anne, they drank coffee. When Morten Borgen faced off with Peter Petersen, they drank coffee. When the new pastor came to Borgensgaard for the first time, they offered him coffee. When the doctor had saved Inger’s life (they thought), they drank coffee. When the mourners were standing in the parlour of Borgensgaard waiting to pay their respects to Inger, they drank coffee. The function of coffee in Ordet was to relieve the tension of the intervening scenes. The final scene excluded, I experience more tension sniffing a shirt I’ve previously worn, trying to decide whether it’s good for one more wearing.

In short, I give this film a rating of Brad – Better Read A Book.

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