The Parson's Widow Review
Fans of Dreyer have been quite spoilt recently. In addition to the superb Criterion releases of his most famous works, Day of Wrath, Ordet, Gertrud and The Passion of Joan of Arc, we have recently seen the release of some early films from the Danish director giving us a fascinating look at his silent-movie work. Eureka’s release of Michael shows intriguing glimpses of themes and styles that would be developed in his greater films, while Image’s US Region 0 release of The Parson’s Widow (1920), a relatively minor work for Dreyer, is a good, accessible and indeed – something we wouldn’t normally associate with Dreyer – a humorous example of early European silent cinema that doesn’t get the same recognition as the works of the German Expressionists.
Sofren has just finished his studies and has come to the village with his fiancée, Mari, hoping to be appointed parson at a little Norwegian village where the previous parson has just died. The village has two other candidates for the post, both learned gentlemen from Copenhagen. One bores the congregation to sleep and the other is subjected to one of Sofren’s pranks, which makes him a laughing-stock. Sofren succeeds where the other two failed by relying on the old tried and trusted method of putting the fear of God into the people of the village. He is hired, but upon his appointment he discovers that the widow of the late parson, Dame Margarete, through some strange local custom, has the right to marry the new parson. Needless to say, she’s a formidable-looking ancient battleaxe who is reputed to have witch-like powers. Sofren has no choice however – he must accept the tradition, as Mari’s father will not allow her to marry him unless he has a post. All he can hope is that the old woman, already three times married, dies soon – with perhaps a little help from outside forces if necessary...
The Parson’s Widow has little of the formal style that Dreyer would later employ in his work and certainly little of the psychological detail of those later films. Surprisingly it shows a lighter side to a fairly serious director, with a fair degree of humour, a strong situation and some good character detail – although it is a little on the broad side. As in Dreyer’s other film dealing with witchcraft, Day of Wrath, the film uses the elements of people’s belief in superstition and the supernatural to draw out the true human characteristics that lie beneath them. Certainly, those characteristics are less dramatic in The Parson’s Wife and the tone is markedly different, but it draws out the human elements superbly nonetheless.
The picture quality on all three films included on the Image DVD is extremely good, particularly The Parson’s Widow, considering it is a silent film from 1920. The image on the main feature is sharp and clear, with strong contrast. Blacks are also strong, deep and textured and there is a good range of greyscale tones, despite the strong contrast. There is some light flicker, but it is only really noticeable in darker scenes and is not so much of an issue elsewhere. Colour tints are used appropriately, bringing out the detail without overwhelming the tones. On a film that is over 80 years old, there is inevitably some damage, but remarkably fewer than would reasonably be expected. Apart from some minor speckling, there are a number of larger marks and scratches, but they are restricted to individual frames, as are one or two more serious tears of the negative. Nevertheless, the overall picture quality here is extremely clear and accurate.
Neal Kurz, who produced the piano score for the US release of Michael provides another perfect score for The Parson’s Widow using works by Edvard Grieg. Like his score for Michael, it strikes the right note throughout, accompanying the film but not imposing its presence upon it.
The film uses English intertitles which suit the film well. One scene with Danish or Norwegian text is shown in the original before being overlain with an English translation, which seems to be a good compromise.
Thorvaldsen: Denmark’s Great Sculptor (1949) (09:59)
This is a short documentary on Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770 – 1844), whose subject matter was built around depictions of Greek gods and classical figures. The film follows the progression of his work which is quite breathtaking. The picture quality is quite superb, the lighting allowing you to see the tremendous detail of the statues and reliefs. English and Danish audio tracks are included for the narrative commentary. The English audio track is a bit crackly, but can be understood clearly. There are no English subtitles provided for the Danish track. The opening titles of the film are in English.
They Caught The Ferry (De Naede Faergen)(1948) (11:12)
Another of a number of the short films Dreyer made during this period when the director was having difficulties getting finance for his films. They Caught The Ferry was financed by the Road Safety Council. A couple on a motorbike, in a hurry to catch the ferry in Nyborg, go to dangerous speeds to make it before the ferry leaves. This is a simple little idea, but one that is well made with some good bike photography. The picture shows quite a number of tramline scratches that are visible throughout, but otherwise the quality is excellent, showing a clear, sharp black & white image.
Pianist Neal Kurz Music Cues
As well as regular scene selection, there is an option allowing you to identify the Grieg pieces used in the film and go directly to the scenes where they are used. This is a useful feature.
The Parson’s Widow is not a typical Dreyer film, operating on a lighter level with a quicker pace and a fair amount of humour, but it is a fine film nonetheless, showing a deeper interest in human nature, behaviour and spiritualism that would be more fully explored in the director’s later films. The Image release is excellent, using a fine well-tinted print, an appropriate music score and containing a few rare short films as extra features.