26 May 2005 | leif-38
A minor masterpiece from another time.
Prästänkan (literal translation of title: The Parson's Widow).
The Parson's Widow is significant for two reasons It is one of the very few national romantic films, and it's one of the very first films to make extensive use of locations.
National romanticism was a 19th century movement that glorified pure hearted, independent farmers (as opposed to the aristocrats) and looked to the hinterlands as a source of pure culture and moral inspiration. It was particularly influential in Norway, the film's location.
As The Parson's Widow begins, Søfren, a divinity student, is offered a position in a rural parish¬ provided he marries the parson's elderly widow. He accepts, despite his betrothal to Mari, whom he passes off as his sister. This theme could exist only in a land where poverty and hunger were facts of life.
Modern audiences may find The Parson's Widow overly moralistic and sentimental. It has a 19th century feel owing more to romantics like Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson than to more modern novelists like Knut Hamsun, who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1920, the year the film was made. At that point, national romanticism was on its way out.
The story has a few supernatural overtones, but this is no horror film. In The Parson's Widow, the fantastic elements originate from folk beliefs and function primarily as cultural references.
Set in an indefinite past, The Parson's Widow makes extensive use of locations at a time when few filmmakers ventured beyond studio doors. It idealizes rural life in a way that anticipates Robert Flaherty's Man of Aran. And, like Flaherty's film, The Parson's Widow meticulously recreates practices that were rapidly disappearing.
The opening scenes were shot at Garmo stavkirke (stave church) in Maihaugen the open air museum in Lillehammer, Norway. The farmstead scenes are probably shot at the same place, and the older extras would have been the last generation to learn the crafts they demonstrate as part of daily life.
People today will view The Parson's Widow primarily because it is an early film of director Carl Theodore Dreyer. But this is no beginner's work. Beautiful composition, expressive lighting, and obsessive attention to detail are signature marks of the director who gave us The Passion of Joan of Arc and Vampyr. The Parson's Widow stands as a minor masterpiece in its own right, but the romanticism is unlikely to resonate with today's audiences.