I recently (finally!) received my DVD copy of Bergman’s Faith Trilogy. Now, the Australian/New Zealand DVD is different to the Criterion DVD cover, and the whole front cover is the above image and nothing else. Spookily relevant.
And I thought, what better time to finally review the three movies… three masterpieces of cinema, and three of Bergman’s best films. So here they are, reviewed individually. Make of them what you will.
Through A Glass Darkly (1961)
The first instalment of the trilogy tells of a family, led by the brutally silent and self-involved David (Gunnar Björnstrand), attempting to deal with mental illness. The beautiful young Karin (Harriet Andersson) has schizophrenia; though this is never actually stated, it becomes obvious as the film progresses. This movie is a character study if ever there was one, and one of the more emotionally affecting films of Bergman. The family appear to be happy at first, but they are all extremely flawed, and some even hate each other.
This is the first of a string of Bergman movies filmed on the island of Faro, which Bergman made his home for a long time. The island itself eminates a sense of claustrophobia, and it seems at time that this family has been pushed too close together for their own safety. Any director could make Karin seem like an insane person ruining the lives of her family, but Bergman opts for another outlook: Karin is imperative to the emotional survival of her family. Without her, there would be a hell of a lot less light in their lives. Even the cheerful Minus (Lars Passgård) is truly sombre at heart, and unhappy like the others.
Their true unhappiness is revealed early in the film in a shockingly unexpected scene; so far in the film, the mood has been very light, but as David steps inside after handing out gifts to his family, he breaks down and cries, loudly and emotionally. It is at this point that the true fragility of their relationship is revealed. Mental illness causes strain, but the strain put on the family is not so much the mental illness as just the general disquiet and contempt that the people have because they are flawed. The only person who is really directly affected by the illness is Karin; the others are just flawed. They’re not mentally ill; just hurt.
Karin is the one who breaks down in hallucinations of a spider-God raping her. Karin hears voices, and dreams of walking through walls. Karin is the metaphor for a broken angel, perhaps a martyr of sorts; Karin once shone a light on her depressed family, but her mental illness has destroyed that light, and it is gone, and Bergman’s analysis of the remains is a requiem, viewing the fragmented family through a glass, darkly, the ‘glass’ represented by the camera lens and ‘darkly’ represented by the darkness within Karin’s shattered psyche.
Is It Worth Adding To Your Netflix Queue?
Winter Light (1961)
Winter Light is the most intense of all of Bergman’s films. It is a marvel that the man has managed to squeeze such amazing emotion into 80 minutes. It contains emotion and emotional value not present in any other movie ever made. It is so unique.
The plot centres on the pastor of a small rural church. He is played with brilliant quietness and sharp accuracy by Gunnar Björnstrand, in a performance that may perhaps be impossible to top. He is lonely, embittered, and filled with doubt. Doubt in himself, doubt in his beliefs, doubt in the people around him and doubt in God. Like Harriet Andersson’s Karin in Through A Glass Darkly, he envisions the God he used to love as a spider. He has prayed and worshipped a figure that seems not to care; who has never spoken, or intervened at any time. Who has remained silent.
Emotionally, Bjornstrand’s Tomas Ericsson is dead. And he has been ever since his wife died, thus treating the gentle advances of the fragile Marta (Ingrid Thulin) with a cold ignorance. In a long, long monologue in the form of a written letter told by Thulin, she explains and professes her absolute unconditional love from him, and soon after, he turns to her and rejects it.
The film relies heavily on dialogue, but dialogue is definitely not all it has to offer. It is shot by Bergman’s longtime cinematographer Sven Nykvist, who took over from the late Gunnar Fischer. Nykvist frames each shot beautifully, and there is one noticeably haunting shot in which almost all the frame is consumed by a white light (you could say, the ‘winter light’ of the title) and it wraps around Tomas’s face as he speaks Jesus’s words to God as he suffered on the cross: “God… why have you forsaken me?” This is an astoundingly beautiful poetic moment if you are familiar with the Biblical passage (which I was not, but I still found it affecting), and the most touching moment of the movie.
It seems that this may also be one of Bergman’s more personal films. There is a scene where, whilst sitting in a car with Marta, he reveals that it was his parents’ dream that he become a priest. This is not only a revelation for Tomas, but a revelation for Bergman. He had a strict Lutheran upbringing, and his father was a priest who would beat him and mistreat him regularly. This makes Björnstrand’s admission (and indeed, the entire film) all the more poignant.
If you wish to think of the film on a more basic, accessible level, then think of it this way: this is not a film about religion, or religious doubt, as much as it is a film about broken people, searching for love and a reason to live in the world. Humans are left to scramble, scream and cry down here on Earth, while God up in the heavens (if he does indeed exist, depends on what you believe) is silent, contemplating.
Is It Worth Adding To Your Netflix Queue?:
The Silence (1963)
The final film in the “trilogy” is The Silence, a directly paced, affecting work. The story is about two sisters, Ester and Anna, and Anna’s son Johan. They are in a strange country, where people speak a language that even translator Ester does not understand. The majority of the film documents their stay at a hotel, as their characters begin to unfold in a series of amusing, strange, erotic and frightening scenes.
Ester is sick, and dying, and we follow her painful sickness through part of the film. She is a distant, lonely woman, as is her sister. However, her sister is more interested in sex, watching a couple have intercourse and then picking up a man of her own, while her sister lies feebly at home, breaking down emotionally, and masturbating in a lonely sequence.
Johan, it seems, has more life and innocence than his mother and aunt. In fact, you could say he is the only character that displays any real sense of life and innocence in the film. He wanders aimlessly around the vast hotel, stumbling into the lives of other people; a hotel porter, an old man, and even a room full of circus midgets. His viewpoint of the world is touching, and brings a certain depth and an entirely different level of understanding to the film. It’s much easier to think about the film from Jonas’ perspective, but it is within the two women that the real challenge lies.
They are distant, self-absorbed, and spiteful. Anna frolicks around nude whilst Ester looks on, in a manner of both hatred and curiosity. On a deeper, repressed level, their relationship is incestuous. But again, they’ve repressed any love for each other with a hell of a lot of bitterness, as many of Bergman’s characters tend to do, and in a manner which he would most notably revisit in another sibling study, Cries and Whispers.
I asked my friend Andrew (who is a confirmed Bergman addict) whether he thought The Silence was light-hearted or an overall darker toned film, and he responded with the latter, contradicting my image of a lighter movie. I was thinking of it as Jonas’s movie, and had overlooked the real emotional turmoil which lies within the sisters. Jonas is there to simply provide relief from the sister’s endless hatred and repression, just as the maid Anna provides relief from the conflicted sisters Maria and Karin in the aforementioned Cries and Whispers.
Whatever manner or tone you prefer to think of the film in, it is undeniably a powerful examination of a world bathed in quiet, where no one can understand each other’s language, and so they resort to silence as a cure for the craziness, but instead, it takes them deeper into an abyss of darkness where life can barely see anything at all, let alone attempt to bubble for the surface.
Is It Worth Adding To Your Netflix Queue?:
Anyway, those’re my reviews. If you’ve got anything to say about the movies, please leave a comment below. And by the way, how do you like the new rating system?
Thanks for reading.