Sunday, September 12, 2010
Days of Wrath
This is a film of transcendent beauty and explosive power, chiseled to perfection. It soars above the other two Dreyer films I have seen, Joan and Ordet, both eligible for the label of masterpiece, in their own right. In the ranges of cinema, it seems a lonely and majestic peak, unlike any thing you have seen on a screen. In its dark brooding sensuality, it is a Rembrandt like canvas of the human condition permeated by elemental human passions of hate, lust and fear. It also reminds me of Shiv Kumar Batalvi's bold classic Panjabi dramatic poem Loona about a young woman married to an aging man, attracted to a step-son of matching age from a previous marriage.
It is set in a medieval period when trial for heresy accompanied by torture to force confessions (of complicity with the devil) seems to have been a routine thing with a well established bureaucratic machinery and procedures. Witchcraft is a taken for granted reality, a belief system accepted even by those accused of it. The film is by no means about religion or it's perversion. The movies of Dreyer are constrained by no ideology or religion. He is a compassionate observer of the hazardous and painful business of being a human being. It is about the torrents, flames and strikes of lightening which constitute our lives. It was made during the Nazi occupation of Denmark and perhaps has echoes about the ease with which populations can be brainwashed, particularly at the point of a gun or the fear of torture.
Absalon, inquisitor of witches is married to the young and beautiful Anne (played by Lisbeth Movin in an electrifying and complex portrayal), whose mother was accused of being of being a witch. Absalon spared the mother's life, in the bargain acquiring a young wife, who naturally had no inclination for it, and has for years burnt with rage, frustration and hatred for the old man. Absalon himself is troubled with guilt and uncertainties, making a strange concoction along with his dogmatic beliefs, reinforced by his official position as inquisitor. Enter Martin, his handsome young grown up son and the beginning of a fore-doomed torrid affair. The movie opens with a burning at the stake and concludes with another.
To repeat the analogy, Dreyer's black and white cinematography has a Rembrandt like stolidity and composure. The movement is ponderous and leisurely rather than slow (this dense drama is no more than an hour and a half). Anne gives an unforgettable portrayal which is a mixture of dignity, intelligence, long denied and inflamed physical desire, a desperation and courage not to be cheated, and finally magnificent pride in her defiance of her betrayers as she hurtles towards the stake.
Jonathan Rosenbaum (essay)