This morning, with my wife at work, my four-year-old daughter at pre-school and my infant son asleep in the next room, I watched the 1955 Danish film Ordet directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, recently voted the #1 film religious or “spiritual” film in a poll facilitated by Image and voted on by forty critics and writers in the Christian press.
The drama focuses on the Borgens, a venerable farming family made up of an aging patriarch, three sons, and the eldest son’s pregnant wife, Inger. The eldest son, Mikkel, is agnostic. Anders, the youngest, dutifully mimes the faith of his father, and the middle, Johannes, believes he is, in fact, the risen Christ.
It’s tough to write about this film without spoiling its stunning conclusion, but suffice it to say that a baby is lost during a hard labor and the mother succumbs soon after, and Johannes claims that he can raise her from the dead—if the family would only believe.
The death of Inger and Johannes’ madness (not to mention a subplot in which Anders is trying to win the hand of the village tailor’s daughter, but is refused because he and his family are not regarded by the tailor as truly Christian) thrusts the Borgen family, the local minister, and an agnostic physician into a drama that calls into question the boundaries of faith and reason.
But I’m not writing today to offer any commentary on this startling piece of art; instead, I’d like to think about the way that art, generally speaking, interrupts and informs our lives.
It is often said that an education that includes an appreciation of art and literature instills empathy and compassion, a tendency to say “what if?”: What if I were in this situation? What if things had turned out differently? Simply put, the thinking goes, an education that includes the arts instills an interest in possibility and thus, I think, hope.
I don’t mean to sound so critical of arts education—I have witnessed first-hand the power of art to build bridges, open eyes, and create community. But as Flannery O’Connor writes in “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” “it’s considered an absolute necessity these days for writers to have compassion. Compassion is a word that sounds good in anybody’s mouth and which no book jacket can do without. It is a quality which no one can put his finger on in any exact critical sense, so it is always safe for anybody to use.”
O’Connor connects this “safe” use of compassion to sentimentality, a romantic and naïve (and hackneyed) portrayal of life that aims to make us appreciative of life’s beauty, wonder, mystery, etc.
For O’Connor, the antidote to sentimentality was the grotesque, which interrupts and undermines our expectations of the way things usually are and usually happen.
Ordet reminded me of O’Connor’s crusade against sentimentality. It reminded me that art offers the exception, not the rule; the outlier, not what is in the main; a view from the margin, not the center.
In Ordet the grotesque, zombie-like Johannes wanders in and out of the farm house, which is fitting as it is his dubious identity that causes the film to shuttle back and forth between the fantasy and realism, margin and mainstream.
We find ourselves simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by him; intrigued by what happened to cause him to believe that he is Christ and yet relieved when his father, a practical man of practical faith, ushers him from the room. This attraction and relief, tension and release, captures the constant restlessness of the soul and the struggle between faith and doubt, not to mention a darker more troubling conversation about the origins, authenticity, and “monstrosity” of the God-man, Jesus.
Ordet is so uncompromising and jarring, so infuriating and so shocking, that it ends up challenging Christian art’s tendency toward pious sentimentality. This is not to make any grand generalizations about Christian art these days, but it is to say that art of Ordet’s ilk is a good and necessary thing.
Here is art that shows faith for what is: radical and scandalous, paradigm-shattering and life-changing.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.