A disconnected, soft spoken man wanders into the vast open field of the Danish countryside, as he often does, preaching to the wind, believing that he is Jesus Christ. His name is Johannes Borgen (Preben Lerdorff Rye), a theology student who suffered a mental breakdown pondering the fundamental questions of faith and religion. His younger brother, Anders (Cay Kristiansen), notices his disappearance from the family farm and sets out to find him with their father, Morten (Henrik Malberg). The eldest brother, Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen), a morally decent agnostic, is alerted of Johannes’ disappearance by his wife, Inger (Birgitte Federspiel), the sweet, kind hearted lady of the house, and Mikkel also joins in the familiar ritual. Morten is a pious man who believes in a personal, unstructured relationship with God, and is racked with guilt over Johannes’ madness. Morten had encouraged Johannes to immerse himself in his studies, convinced that his son’s charismatic personality and passionate devotion would make him ideally suited to restore the villagers’ faith in God. Now, he prays for Johannes’ suffering to end. One day, Anders confides to Mikkel and Inger that he is in love with Anne (Gerda Nielsen), the daughter of a strict, religious fundamentalist tailor, Peter (Ejnar Federspiel), a relationship that is certain to be met with disapproval. Encouraged by Inger, Morten reluctantly visits Peter, and their polite dialogue soon escalates into a war of words over their differing observations of faith. As Morten storms out of the house, he receives news that Inger has suffered complications from childbirth, and a venomous Peter declares his cruel wish for an unspeakable tragedy so that Morten will come to accept his way of thinking.
Using long panning shots and spare, precise composition, Carl Theodor Dreyer examines the complex nature of faith in Ordet. There is a glimpse of its elusiveness in Johannes’ distracted, rambling speech, questioning people’s skepticism and inability to accept the existence of miracles in the modern world. Peter’s callousness and intractability reflect the intolerance of placing organized religion above compassion and human decency, an austerity similarly explored by Ingmar Bergman. Despite his innate goodness and sincerity, Mikkel’s lack of faith prevents him from imploring God to grant what would seem to be an impossible wish. Similarly, Morten’s faith also proves to be imperfect as he dismisses Johannes’ visions as delusions. In the end, the words of the seeming madman prove to be enlightened, as Johannes provides the testament, the Word, that redeems the family from their overwhelming pain and misery. But what is the Word? It is a deeply personal question that is best answered in silence and introspection.
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