Sunday, July 01, 2007

Day of Wrath


Carl Dreyer's Day of Wrath is an amazing film. I saw it a few months ago for the first time and saw it again last week. I liked it even more. Ordet is another soul-stirring and unforgettable film that I want to see again. I was also thinking about Bergman and Bresson and I realized that I like Bergman and Dreyer more than Bresson and then I came to know that Dreyer and Bergman were/are of Lutheran background whereas Bresson was a catholic. Is it because Lutheranism is intellectually more respectable? (Not that I know much about Christianity or Theology.)

I have seen five Robert Bresson films so far. My personal favourite of them all is Mouchette, one of the most cruel and shattering films I have ever seen. People say similar things about Au Hasard Balthazar but somehow I couldn't make the required leap of faith in this case. My mind was occupied by thoughts about animal rights and related philosophical issues more than anything about religion and human suffering. Pickpocket and A Man Escaped are both masterpieces too but I admired them more than I loved them. Diary of a Country Priest left me a little cold. Not to say it is bad or anything just in comparison to others.

Anyway, I have digressed. I wanted to talk about Day of Wrath in this post. So the film is set in a Danish village sometime in the seventeenth century when people were still burning witches. The film is not really about witchcraft though it shows the obvious misogyny and male sexual paranoia which underscore witchcraft very eloquently. It is also interesting that even the idea of religion and God itself, in a general anthropological way, had the same basis as Witchcraft. That is, in people's need to assign agency to every natural phenomenon. This need to find answers to questions like Who shook the leaf? Then who made the wind blow? And then who changed the air pressure? And on and on until you find your God. It is similar with say, a plague or an unnatural death -- must be the work of the agent of the Satan on earth. And who could that be other than the scheming and resentful woman, mostly old ones and widows.

What I loved best about the film is that Dreyer doesn't have any obvious agenda. He is not interested in denouncing witchcraft or religious superstition, that would be an obvious and pointless thing to do. You don't need a film to learn about the evils of superstition. Rather he is more interested in the nature of faith, what is its source and what it can do. Just like in Ordet, he makes the question that "Can faith resurrect a dead body" a non-obvious question, by moving it outside the domain of rationality. In this film the similar question is -- Can someone cast a spell, wish someone's death and can the wish come true? In other words, is witchcraft possible? The power of this film lies in the fact that it makes you think about this obvious looking question.

I haven't described what happens in the film because just like Ordet it is quite suspenseful (even for believers). The other striking thing is the visual design, specially the austerity of the set design, the harsh lighting and the gloomy Danish background -- everything to a truly stunning effect. In fact it must be one of the most stunning Black and White films ever. In short a masterpiece for the ages. You should be running to the nearest DVD rental if you haven't seen it yet.

15 comments:

jyothsnay said...

I would not see self running towards the DVD shop Mr Zembla, cause I have seen this movie :)))))))
neat review!
what I really liked about this movie is the portrayal of tussle/conflict between societal factors such as evil and good, desire to live and death, senility and youthfulness (not mindset, but the demographic varaible youth), beauty and ugliness/wretchedness. The stress as exerted by fear on the faces (time and people) is palpable. Suppression of simple desires and basic level of happiness are labeled as the battle against evil. "Babette's Feast", one more Danish movie,treads more or less on a similar ground, however, the compassion (as u can recall) was the main anthem over there. and I felt the visual experience is flawless and crisp (is it due to the palette?), as you mentioned, and further reinforced or accentuated by the fortified characterisation by the lead/protagonists

Alok said...

you have seen it? I am impressed! :)

I agree with your observations. The comparison to Babette's Feast also make sense but this film is visually more remarkable and memorable.

Anonymous said...

Actually Catholicism has historically contributed more to philosophy than Lutheranism. And I say that as a non-Christian. The Catholics - St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Ignatius Loyola, Roger Bacon, St. Becket, St. Thomas Moore and among non-clergy - Descartes and Pascal to name a few.

In cinema, the Catholics have John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Roberto Rossellini, Federico Fellini, Martin Scorsese, Frank Capra and among secular folk - Orson Welles, Buster Keaton and controversial choice but Luis Bunuel.

That said Carl Th. Dreyer ended up making the greatest Catholic film of all time with The Passion of Joan of Arc and all his films are great. Day of Wrath is a special film as well and a major influence on Arthur Miller's Crucible.

Alok said...

that comment was just a thought and an impression about the evolution of christianity from the concerns of laws and institutions towards a more subjective justification of faith and a focus on the individual, how faith is connected to his individual self and identity, his personal experiences.

I really don't think it is a very helpful category. Bresson, Dreyer Bergman they are all concerned with universal questions and they are all great.

I didn't think of Fellini, Scorsese, Rosselini. Yes you are right, they are more obviously catholic.

And I also missed Bunuel who is perhaps my favourite of all. And a few months back I saw Pasolini's Teorema which is another amazing religious film in the Bunuelian tradition.

The other names on your list are more perplexing.. Ford, Capra may be but Hitchcock, Welles...?

I haven't yet seen the two movies about Saints and their lives by Rosselini and Pasolini. They are on my to-see list.

Alok said...

And I didnt know that Arthur Miller was inspired by this film. There is certainly a lot of similarity in the subject matter but I think Dreyer doesn't really care too much about the injustice and inhumanity of witch-hunt, he more or less leaves it as something obvious and self-evident and goes on a totally different philosophical plane. I think it makes this film much superior to the Arthur Miller play.

Cheshire Cat said...

I'm glad that you posted about this film. I think it's a work of genius, and I'm surprised people compare it unfavourably with "The Passion of Joan of Arc". I don't know if you've seen Ray's "Devi". That's a movie I really liked and I only realized after watching "Day of Wrath" that "Devi" is a rip-off :) Seriously, I don't know if Ray ever watched this movie, but the similarities are uncanny.

I especially love Dreyer's spare use of dialogue. His characters don't speak much, but what they do say conveys something powerful and essential...

By the way, it's not quite accurate to call Bresson a Catholic. He was a Jansenist, and his beliefs were in many ways closer to those of some Protestant sects.

Alok said...

No I have not seen Devi yet. But I have read about it, it does sound similar.

Agree about the use of dialogues. Day of Wrath and Ordet both feel as if they were deliberately made as per "a silent-film aesthetic."

btw, I was just reading this excellent interview yesterday. Very informative. I have to do some wikipedia surfing in the meanwhile to get a grip of the history of christianity.

Cheshire Cat said...

"I haven't been to the movies in a long time. The last film I saw was "The Lives of Others" and that was in February."

"I saw it a few months ago for the first time and saw it again last week."

I love contradictions. I hope there isn't an explanation...

Anonymous said...

-------------
By the way, it's not quite accurate to call Bresson a Catholic. He was a Jansenist, and his beliefs were in many ways closer to those of some Protestant sects.
-------------

Bresson denied that in an interview with Paul Schrader. He wasn't a Jansenist at all. and Jansenism is a Catholic sect like the Jesuits, the Carmelites which all fall under the papacy. Jansenism lost favour with the Church and the Church doesn't support it anymore.

Anonymous said...

---------------------------------
And I also missed Bunuel who is perhaps my favourite of all.
---------------------------------

As Orson Welles said about Bunuel, 'he hates God as only a true Christian can'.

He's to me, the greatest Catholic film-maker of the last century.

As for Hitchcock, watch 'The Wrong Man', 'Shadow of a Doubt', 'Strangers on a Train' and 'I Confess'. The whole notion of guilt and innocence, transference of blame in his films are very Catholic ideas.

Alok said...

cat: sorry to disappoint but no contradiction there. I said "I haven't been to movies" that means I haven't been to the theatres. I saw this and a few other movies on DVD. In general my movie appetite has decreased. Unless I am convinced of its "importance" I don't feel like watching anything.

anonymous: Thanks for reminding the quote about Bunuel. It is great. Also I feel that knowing about sects, traditions and other technicalities of christianity is helpful but not really necessary. Religion is just a starting point and even there the approach is quite universalistic.

Madhat said...

I loved Diary of a country priest! Though I think Pickpocket is a masterpiece, I thought the former was an exceptional movie.
btw, I watched Angels in America after reading your post and I thank you for suggesting it. One of these days, I will write my thoughts on that series. I have been reading your blog and am trying to get hold of the movies you recommend. I guess I have found a trusty, reliable source for my insatiable thirst for cinema.

Alok said...

Hi Madhat, I am very glad you saw it and liked it. About being a "reliable source" I think One should only take pointers from different places but ultimately one should follow one's own interests... :)

Madhat said...

I do have my own sources. How do you think I saw Bresson? But mostly I search around at sites where I sometimes get some info about movies that interest me. For a long time, I procured and saw classics but right now, I am looking out more for contemporary cinema, which I have found harder to find. There are the usual Asian directors whose movies I watch but I am trying to find little known contemporary films like Last Life In the Universe

Alok said...

yes, that's true. Internet and blogs are really great in that way. So many varieties of tastes and opinions.

I loved Last Life in the Universe too. Quirky and very "poetic" as you say..