Saturday 23 May 2009

The Parson's Widow (1920)

Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Stars: Einar Röd, Greta Almroth and Hildur Carlberg

Over the mountain wander Sofren and Mari. Sofren is a student of theology come to apply for the vacant position of parson in this rural Norwegian village. Mari is his fiancee, but not yet his wife because her father won't allow it until he becomes a real parson. Luckily for him, his two competitors from Copenhagen aren't particularly up to the task. The first looks like a cross between John Lennon and Bill Gates and bores his audience to sleep, so much so that even the man tasked with keeping everyone awake drops off; and the other is a bloated fool who keeps them amused only because Sofren has stuck a feather to the back of his head.

So Sofren it is: the five bearded elders tasked with the decision don't have much of a task after all, given that he's young and dynamic and can think on his feet. However, there's a catch, for there must always be a catch. The local custom is that the parson's widow comes with the job. This wasn't for any religious reason, merely a practical one because someone has to take care of her, after all, but this particular parson's widow, Dame Margarete Pedersdotter, has outlasted the previous three parsons only to be handed over each time to their successors 'like a piece of furniture'.

And just as Sofren had no problem outsmarting his rivals, who run for the hills the moment they see Dame Margarete anyway, the parson's widow outsmarts Sofren. Eager to retain her position running the parson's house, she persuades him subtly to propose. There's mention that she may be a witch but she really accomplishes it with a herring and a bottle of schnapps. So Sofren becomes the parson and Dame Margarete becomes the parson's wife once more, mistress of her whole domain. And with this setup, with Mari introduced into the mix as Sofren's sister rather than his fiancee, naturally hilarity ensues.

Well hilarity is a strong term, given that this is a Swedish silent film from 1920 and a Carl Theodor Dreyer movie to boot, but it's a lot closer to hilarity than I'd have ever imagined for one of his films. I've seen a lot of them, having been utterly stunned by The Passion of Joan of Arc and fascinated into finding as much of the rest of his work that I could. This was the second film Dreyer directed, but the eighth of his fourteen feature length movies for me. It's the first to invoke laughter, which comes about mostly in a subtle way but with some stooping to pantomime, such as the scenes where Sofren prances around in an elaborate Satan suit after he becomes convinced that his wife is a witch.

It's constructed well, with strong performances and memorable characters, varied shots and varied expectations. It looks good, whether inside or out, and there's a lot of use of the common silent film masking technique that turns the screen into a small circle to highlight what we should be looking at. As would fit a story built around a folk custom, there's a great deal here that speaks to customs and folklore, from dances to rituals to beliefs. Quite which Scandinavian culture or cultures this applies to, I'm not sure, given that it's a Swedish film set in Norway but based on a Danish story, but they're fascinating.

And backing up Dreyer's direction, Dreyer being a man who controlled his films as surely as Dame Margarete controls her household, are a number of memorable performances. Einar Röd plays Sofren as something of an imp. We rarely see him in church, this being one of the least religious religious films I've ever seen. Instead we watch him try all sorts of hare brained schemes to try to see his Mari, always coming up short but learning something in the process, there very much being a lesson here in and amidst the comedy. Greta Almroth is a wholesome but frustrated Mari, reminding a little of Elsa Lanchester.

Best of all is Hildur Carlberg as Dame Margarete, dominant throughout but always human. Born as far back as 1843, she was 76 when she made this film, her third and last. With a memorable face with many lines showing her age and a memorable gait that would have made her a prime candidate for a major role in a zombie movie, it's sad that she wouldn't make any more. She died two months before this film was released. I wonder if they nailed a horseshoe above her door and sprinkled linseed oil on the ground to ensure she didn't come back to haunt her house.

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