A young theologian of modest means named Söfren (Einar Röd) has long courted his beloved Mari (Greta Almroth), but their hoped for marriage has been indefinitely postponed by Mari’s father until Söfren has been able to find a respectable post as parson of his own church. One day, an opportunity presents itself when the parson of a nearby village passes away, and the local church issues an open invitation for interested candidates to conduct a sermon before the entire congregation. The first candidate (Olav Aukrust), a prosaic and uncharismatic orator, soon lulls the parishioners to sleep with his laborious speech on the origin of sin in the Garden of Eden. Meanwhile, the devious Söfren decides to undercut his remaining rival’s chances by playing a practical joke on the distracted and oblivious second candidate (Kurt Welin), infusing unintentional humor to the solemnity of his sermon. Given the lackluster and amused response to the other candidates, Söfren delivers an impassioned and inspired sermon that captivates the audience and makes him the immediate front-runner for appointment to the post. However, the parsonage also comes with an unexpected obligation: the care and responsibility for the late parson’s dour and stern widow, Dame Margarete (Hildur Carlberg), who has already outlived her three previous husbands. Drawn to the privilege of the position – and perhaps bewitched by the inscrutable Dame Margarete – Söfren proposes and reluctantly marries her. Rationalizing that Dame Margarete’s advanced years only proves to be a brief setback in their marriage plan, Söfren brings Mari into the parsonage under the pretext that she is his sister, and begin to concoct schemes in order to expedite the widow’s demise.
Carl Theodor Dreyer creates a humorous, poignant, and compassionate domestic satire on aging, obsolescence, and the social status of women in The Parson’s Widow. Using recurrent imagery, doppelgängers, and plot repetition, Dreyer affectionately illustrates the transience and unalterable cycle of life: the repeated shot of Söfren and Mari by the waterfall at the beginning and end of the film; Dame Margarete’s perceived appearance as a young woman; the dilemma that Dame Margarete and her first husband (her true love) similarly faced as Söfren and Mari on the road to the parsonage. Inevitably, by presenting Söfren and Mari’s comically misadventurous path towards reconciling the diametric forces of moral obligation and personal integrity, perseverance and humanity, social duty and emotional need, Dreyer reveals the immutable process of life and the innate human struggle for spiritual and secular equilibrium.
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