Sunday, June 14, 2009

Day of Wrath

Dir. Carl Dreyer

There is something quite radical about Carl Dreyer's filmography. His most well known pictures are remembered for their grossly upsetting scenarios and visuals, as well as their severe undertones. Unlike fellow Scandinavian filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, who builds steadily towards cathartic philosophical climaxes, Dreyer works within a tension/release system, one that gives poignancy to quieter moments in which subtext takes up a prominent but subtly inferred position and lends significant terror and volume to the rawness of human suffering and the bitter contemptibility between persons and institutions, mainly the church. Religion is a reoccurring topic in Bergman's films but while he tends to deal with the motif by smashing it into his beautifully designed, forlorn and misguided characters, Dreyer takes a more theatrical angle. Dreyer sets his stage dramatically and invites skepticism but ultimately draws the viewer in so deeply to his remarkably flawed characters who breathe humanity that any element of disbelief is paralyzed. He deals with difficult Judeo Christian subject matter through a lens of radicalism, bordering sometimes on the absurd, but uses that same radical gaze to reveal the deeply convoluted discrepancies between piety and morality. His films are particularly unnerving not because they show doubt in religious figures (such as in Bergman's Winter Light or its pseudo-contemporary Doubt) but rather the lack thereof. The church is portrayed as a coldly decisive body of misanthropes whose highest priority is to decimate all forms that do not congeal with their own narrow reading of the Bible. The film Day of Wrath is a punctual critique of narrow mindedness. While commenting on the rigor mortis state of Christian dogma, the film also picks up where The Passion of Joan of Arc left off in developing themes of women's liberation from an oppressive, male dominated world and their subsequent role as independents.

Explaining Day of Wrath's plot without making it sound like a second rate horror/thriller but rather a subliminal, religious familial drama is a challenge. Taking place in a Danish village in the throes of witch-hunt paranoia in the 17th century, the film's narrative is divided into two segments. In the first an old woman, Herlof Marte, is accused of being a witch and is hunted down by village officials, a rather direct allusion to the Nazi occupation of Denmark during the 1940s. She seeks refuge in the home of Anne, a newly married young woman whose husband, Absalon, is a local pastor involved in the persecution of witchcraft. Herlof Marte knew Anne's mother while she was alive and reveals that she was a witch. Soon after this revelation Herlof Marte is captured and tortured until she confesses to practicing witchcraft. She is burned at the stake, but not before she swears death upon the responsible clergy members.

The second portion of the film is a twisted, diabolical romance. Absalon's son, Martin, returns home and quickly falls in love with Anne. Anne, whose transformation from sweet subordinate to manipulative seductress is both physical and psychological, falls passionately in love with Martin and confesses her terrible anger at having her youth stolen away by Absalon whom she does not love and even later admits to hating. While he performs the last rites for a fellow priest, Anne wishes death upon Absalon. In a scene of furious malevolence Absalon pleads forgiveness from Anne, who refuses and curses him to expiration. Terrified by her supernatural powers Martin is caught between wishing to abandon her and his irrational fear of the cabalistic occult. She dogs after him in a perverse attempt to convince him of her innocence but as the final portion of the film reveals Martin's faith in God is stronger than his trust of anything temporal or secular.

It is not altogether clear what final conclusion Dreyer was coming to in Day of Wrath. Perhaps it was that although women were gaining a foothold in modern societies around the world at the time the film was being made, they were still ultimately damned to apologize and atone for their own instinctual and righteous desires for independence. There is a rather open deriding of the “old ways” in Dreyer's films (matriarchs, abstinence, arranged marriages), but there is also a sense of shallowness in the callow confidence of his younger characters. It is as if both sides are arrogant and ignorant simultaneously. Perhaps Dreyer's ultimate objective was to reconcile the young and old, men and women, tyrant and laborer. It is possible that in his constant probing of institutional branches of society and their dated doctrines that Dreyer was not simply trying to agitate people into action but rather express some fundamental concern about the way humans treat each other. Using history and religion as his road map Dreyer successfully modeled a paradigmatic world. Of course this can only be viewed through the lens of antithesis, as Dreyer's films are quite dystopian in their own right. They advertise humanitarian goals in and through their use of negative imagery and self relexivity. Day of Wrath concludes not in favor of the protagonist or the antagonist, the subjective good or bad side, but rather in favor of humankind. It is a bold cause and one that cannot be achieved simply or by very direct means. It takes a skillful communicator of which Dreyer stands as a sterling exemplar.

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