INGMAR BERGMAN’S FANNY AND ALEXANDER (1982)

Fanny and Alexander (1982) was ‘s final cinematic work, although he did make a handful of TV movies afterwards, ending with the poignant Saraband (2003). After decades of desolation within an agnostic cosmos, Bergman keeps Fanny and Alexander in check. Although his obsessions are present, it is sort of an autobiographical release, which results in an immensely  enjoyable, epic[1]coda to one of the most consummate cinema oeuvres, and could even be recommended as a starting point to the Bergman novice.

As with most of Bergman’s films, Fanny and Alexander was received with a degree of controversy. Some criticized Bergman’s previous work as overly pessimistic. He also was frequently accused of pretentiousness, and as is often the case, that is a lazy standby label that reveals far more about the critic than the filmmaker. With Fanny and Alexander, Bergman was criticized for catering to populism (John Simon in National Review) and for oversimplification (Dave Kehr and Pauline Kael ). Yet, even the most critical reviews conceded Fanny and Alexander was Bergman at his most accomplished.

There is a pronounced fantasy element to this period family drama, so much so it is one of the few Bergman film covered by Richard Scheib at his genre site, Moria film reviews.

Fanny and Alexanderis set at the turn of the 20th century, and immediately establishes its theme of childhood imagination. I would be hard-pressed to name another Bergman film in which children are the primary protagonists. When Bergman takes the plunge, he does so without abandon. The ghostliness of childhood saturates the narrative, the assured pacing, and the artistic design. It opens with ten-year-old Alexander Ekdahl (Bertil Guve) preoccupied with miniature theatrical figurines and a caged rat. The scene is fittingly choreographed, in part, to Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet in F Major (Schumann is possibly the apex of 19th century romantic innocence) and sets the leisurely pacing. Alexander calls out to his eight-year-old sister Fanny (Pernilla Alwin), who doesn’t answer—but like most children, Alexander is soon distracted.

Shortly before a dazzling, magically detailed Christmas feast with the Ekdhal clan, Alexander is caught up in a dreamlike state as he imagines an erotic statue suddenly motioning to him, followed by death dragging his scythe.

A Christmas play evokes Mozartian flutes, followed by the entry of uncles Gustav (an amorous Jarl Kulle with a flaming punchbowl) and Carl (Borje Ahlstedt, drunkenly farting on the stairs), and possibly the most beautiful pillow fight ever filmed.

Fanny and Alexander’s theatrical grandmother Helena (Gunn Walgren) is the matriarch of the Ekdhal clan, which is filled with irascible actors, rogues, illusionists, and a multitude of servants.   The theater life creates a community much like one would find in religion. Both Fanny and Alexander are introverted, but dazzled by the enchanted world gifted them by their theater manager father Oscar (Allan Edwall) and actress mother Emilie (Ewa Froling); but the second half of the film takes a darker turn when Oscar dies unexpectedly.  At his father’s funeral procession, led by the ultra-patristic and austere Calvinist Bishop Edvard Vergerus (Jan Malmsjo), a bitter and frightened Alexander, out of character, spews obscenities, foretelling the struggles ahead.

Emilie marries Edvard, and soon Fanny and Alexander are subjected to dogmatic abuses[2]. Emilie belatedly realizes that she has married a clerical beast. Oscar’s ghost rises (apparently conjured forth by Alexander) to intervene. With the aid of the Jewish eccentric Isak (Erland Josephson) and his warlock nephew Ismael (Stina Ekblad), Fanny and Alexander are smuggled out of their home. Their escape is like a fairy tale, with the children finding a new sanctuary within Isak’s surreal theatrical abode. Alexander’s ghostly visions serve as a segue into a chimerical coming of age parable, and the demonic bishop’s fiery comeuppance may be Bergman’s finest moment on celluloid.

While Fanny and Alexander is indisputably imperfect,  it is a sensuous epilogue that stands not only as essential Bergman, but essential cinema. A few weeks ago, I declared that once done with my latest round of dipping back into Bergman, I would be forced to shelve any further revisits. After my third summer with Fanny and Alexander, I can most assuredly say that I lied.

  1. The theatrical cut runs three hours. A 5-hour television version was simultaneously released, as Bergman was understandably reluctant to edit it down. The longer version, with stronger supernatural atmosphere, is preferable. []
  2. Bergman’s father was a severe Calvinist []

INGMAR BERGMAN’S AUTUMN SONATA (1978)

is a damned important filmmaker. As an artist and Catholic, I’ve experienced his body of work and without reserve, I rank him with the likes of , , and . Yet, I’m now in my fifties, and I’ve come to the point where I can relate to the conductor Leopold Stokowski, who—late in life—said he was done with the pessimism of composer Gustav Mahler. Likewise, I hope I’m never asked to watch a Bergman film again for the remainder of my life. Not that 366 Weird Movies asked me to; I did it to myself.

For Autumn Sonata, Bergman cast Casablanca actress Ingrid Bergman (no relation). It proved to be her last film before succumbing to cancer. She plays the famous pianist Charlotte Andergast who has abandoned her family to pursue her career. Charlotte accepts daughter Eva’s () invitation for a visit, despite not having seen her for years. Having recently lost her longtime lover, Charlotte wants to stay at her daughter’s Norway parsonage for emotional support. Married to the reserved clergyman Viktor (Halvar Björk), Eva’s world is a far cry from the celebrity and glamour of her mother’s life. The complexities of their relationship are incandescent, and this may well be the most well-acted film of Bergman’s oeuvre.

Ingrid’s casting was poignant on numerous levels. She had longed to make a film with her namesake. Both she and Ingmar had been in exile from Sweden (the director for tax evasion—he was later found innocent). Ingrid had been harshly criticized for abandoning her family to purse an affair with the married Roberto Rossellini and, after her films were widely picketed and banned, she fled Sweden. Ingrid was initially skeptical because the parallels between actress and role were so disconcerting. She overcame her trepidation, however, to deliver a tour-de-force swan song. Ullman is, in every way, Ingrid’s equal, and although this is ultimately an ethical and psychologically healthy chamber film, it is inherently Bergmanesque.

At first, the reunion seems to be a joyful one. Charlotte has barely settled in, however, when old tensions between mother and daughter arise. Eva, a writer, is also a pianist, but she is angst-ridden with an inferiority complex that she blames on her mother. Eva’s fear of playing Chopin to her hypercritical mother is validated. Even the musically illiterate can detect the difference between Eva’s subpar performance and Charlotte’s sublime interpretation. The brilliance of Bergman lies in divided sympathies. We can identify with Eva feeling patronized and shamed, but we also acknowledge Charlotte’s valid aesthetic criticisms.

A more painful source of contention is the surprise of Eva opening her home to her sister Helena (Lena Nyman). Suffering from a degenerative disease, Helena is a provocative reminder of Charlotte’s neglect and narcissism.

The scene in which Eva confronts Charlotte throughout the night is lengthy, riveting, and drenched in emotion. Charlotte’s propensity for bragging and her lack of humility, her inability to listen and perhaps even to fully love, is punctuated by Eva’s demand of silence, and, ultimately by her mediocrity. Yet, we also see Eva’s strength as a giving savior/saint to both her husband and sister—a role that Charlotte is utterly incapable of. Lesser filmmakers would have taken sides and painted the scene solely in hues of pathos, but Bergman is not so monochromatic: he uses humor, awe, and sensuality. Bergman and cinematographer Sven Nyqvist opt for intense extreme closeups, filmed in gorgeous oranges and browns. It’s called Autumn Sonata for a reason, and the engrossing music (Chopin, Bach, Beethoven) is of equal importance to the theatrical-like visuals.

Björk is, as usual, superb, but ultimately it’s not his film. We go through the wringer with Eva and Charlotte, and there is no sophomoric resolution, because reconciliation sure as hell isn’t microwaved. It’s sacramentally built; and Bergman leaves us with the hope, and the feeling, that it will be built. In that, I find Autumn Sonata to be as close to Catholicism as Bergman comes.

*ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AT 366 WEIRD MOVIES

INGMAR BERGMAN’S CRIES AND WHISPERS (1972)

The iris of ‘s Cries and Whispers (1972) is a red deathbed of intense and frightening passion unequaled in the whole of cinema. As the filmmaker himself indicated, Cries and Whispers is a film predominantly told by color. I first encountered Cries and Whispers in the early 1980s and it lingered: an unforgettable, altering experience. The only thing I can compare it to is the first time I stood before one of Pablo Picasso’s rose period paintings of a maternal subject. It stirs you in a way that makes you feel simultaneously alive and small, and glad to be small before an authentic artist whose mastery is so expressively humane as to be hypnotic and humbling. As filtered through the abdominal lensing of Sven Nykvist, Cries and Whispers imparts a vision of infinite beauty.

This is a female world, taking place over a period of two days in the life of four women. Yes, it is also about the dying process and death, but accompanied by resurrection and endowment.

At her English manor, the 40-ish, matronly Agnes () is dying, and this is not a stylish, incandescent death. She is in unspeakable agony amidst her kitsch surroundings. Watching this film again recently, it gripped me personally, having spent two days with my father dying of the cancer that brutally and unmercifully took away his life; quickly, but not quickly enough. And that’s why Cries and Whispers is intimately affecting.

Surrounding Agnes are her sisters, Karin () and Maria (), along with her loyal peasant servant, Anna (Kari Sylvan), who maternally responds to Agnes’ needs. She cradles Agnes and attempts to comfort her. Yet, this is also a film about pain; like a late Edvard Munch painting of feverish icy dreams. As a motherly figure, Anna cannot ease Agnes’ suffering. Like Anna’s biological daughter, Agnes will die.

The sexual symbology is as vivid as those various shades of (red). Agnes, never knowing intimacy (white) is dying of ovarian cancer. Maria’s adulteries drove her husband to suicide. Karin performed a bloody self-mutilation in revenge against her husband. All this segues into the pain of distance, of touching and withdrawing from touch; neither Maria nor Karin can look upon Agnes as she gasps for life. Familial emotional distance parallels the impotence of religious comfort (black). The cleric, there to give extreme unction, utters a prayer that betrays his faithlessness and cluelessness, because before him is the Pieta to which he is blind. Agnes attempts repeatedly to vomit in a basin, but it is to no avail. She parallels the Corpus Christi, cradled by Anna’s Madonna: the sole beacon of faith and the sole embrace who draws her lifeless charge to dry breasts. Yet, Anna gifts a renewal from cancer of the womb.

Although faithless herself, Agnes receives absolution, and we hear her alive again in the startling finale. Her voice rises from her journal, and we see the sisters together again in a paradisaical setting: “I wanted to hold the moment fast, and thought, Come what may, this is happiness. I cannot wish for anything better. Now, for a few minutes, I can experience perfection.”

*originally published at 366 Weird Movies

INGMAR BERGMAN’S SILENCE OF GOD TRILOGY: THE SILENCE (1963)

Throughout ‘s “Silence of God” trilogy, the divine voice becomes increasingly faint, until the vaguely concluding The Silence (1963), which is the world of a dead God. Whether or not The Silence is related to Through a Glass Darkly or Winter Light is debatable. Bergman himself never referred to the films as being concretely connected. It was later film enthusiasts (and home video marketing) who alternately lumped them together (not altogether incorrectly).

Silence‘s anti-theology theology is prominent in the first lines, when ten-year old Johan (Jorgen Lindstorm) points to a sign in a train compartment and asks his aunt Ester (): “What does this mean?” Her answer is elusive—“I don’t know”—despite the fact that she is a translator. Johan is the son of Anna (), who sweats sensuality in the stifling heat of the train ride. This is in sharp contrast to the ill Ester. There is tension between the sisters, but we don’t know what birthed it or why it exists, even in the midst of Ester’s dying. Questions are asked for which no answers are given. “Tell me,” Anna asks Ester, “When father died, you said you didn’t want to go on living. So why are you still around?” The closest explanation Anna gives for her contempt for Ester is “Everything has to have desperate meaning for you,” which is telling, as no desperate meaning is given—not even the reason for the opening and closing train trips.

Additionally, there is an ambiguous incestuous relationship between the sisters. Anna taunts Ester with a lie about a sexual encounter, told as if flaunting infidelity. Yet, then she offers: “It just so happens that I was lying.” However, later, an actual sexual encounter is presented, and again Ester is taunted. She asks: ‘What have I done to deserve this?” “Nothing,” Anna answers.

Torn between his reserved aunt and emotionally charged mother is Johan. He is much present. He bathes Anna and hovers over Ester’s death bed. Yet, what is his purpose in the narrative? He wanders the hotel having encounters, from a waiter to a group of dwarves (?); all of which are presented, then abandoned. He serves as a voyeur to Ester’s boozing, cigarette smoking, and reading, and then to Anna’s sexuality. He’s like a series of loosely connected, masturbatory vignettes; a kind of divine figure, and we’re never certain that he exists, even though the film is channeled through him.

Aesthetically, this psychodrama is the most surreal of the trilogy, but there’s precision in its clarity and absurdity. Only a self-assured director could pull it off. Bergman does.

*originally published at 366 Weird Movies

INGMAR BERGMAN’S SILENCE OF GOD TRILOGY: WINTER LIGHT (1963)

Winter Light was said to be ‘s favorite of his own works, and one is tempted to concur. Having read about it for years, I was hesitant to see it after reading it described as Bergman’s bleakest film. This surprised me, because what I saw was akin to a clerical farce. Perhaps one has to have degree of experience with and appreciation for the clerical model to appreciate the humor.

It’s icily humorous, similar to the way that monk/philosopher Thomas Merton is never funnier than when he shrieks at the bad taste of his Trappist fellows in his journals, replaces their kitschy holy cards with prints of better art, or maneuvers a bush to hide a hideous statue of a long dead saint until he can convince his superior to cart off the offending cheap plaster. I can relate, but—enveloped in a parish that looks like a precursor to those ghastly Bible bookstores that every rural mall is cursed with—Winter Light‘s Rev. Ericsson wouldn’t. However, the actor () playing Ericsson would. Per the norm, this Bergman regular completely embodies his character with a wit and physicality that hearkens back to the silent film acting style.

Bishop Fulton Sheen talked about joy in repetition, and used conducting Mass as an example; he thoroughly convinced us of his joy, giving enthusiastic, occasionally brilliant and just as occasionally ultra-conservative homilies. On the other hand, I recall a parish priest who whipped out the creed and “Our Father” at breakneck speed, almost like an auctioneer, and he could get through a mass in 40 minutes, tops. Later, we discovered it was because he liked to go fishing, and he liked his beer. Still, there was a rushed enthusiasm in his delivery, even if he had more important things to do. In contrast, sickly Rev. Ericsson barely gets through his Lutheran Masses to an ever-dwindling congregation: by the film’s end, he’s left with a single parishioner. His sermons are unconvincing and uninspiring because, now a widower, he’s lost faith in God.

Among Ericsson’s congregants are suicidal fisherman Jonas () and his schoolmarm mistress Marta (), who initially looks like she stepped out of an El Greco painting of a 1960s Euro suburbanite. She’s quite the contrast to Ericsson’s detachment (it’s called Winter Light for a reason). Later, Marta graduates to an emotive Picassoesque monster intent on bagging herself the reluctant preacher man for husband, despite her own atheism and his pining for his dead wife.

Ericsson proves useless to others as he is himself when he fails to prevent Jonas, obsessed with the ills of the world, from offing himself. Nor does the parson have any effective words of comfort for fisherman’s pregnant widow, Karin (Gunnel Lindblom).

Again, we have a disciple who, like Christ in the garden of Olives, suffers at the hands of a faceless deity. The silence is catching, only broken when Ericsson displays disgust for the devastated Marta. And everyone—from the organist to parishioners and pastor—wants to get out of this absurd liturgical scenario, made all the more humorous in the way its starkly filmed.

Like , Bergman’s long-claimed atheism is suspect, because although he doesn’t subscribe to belief per se (both filmmakers are intuitive and honest enough to know that belief is ultimately an abstraction), a pulse of seeking permeates his oeuvre. Like , Bergman finds an inherent absurdity in that seeking, but never at the expense of essaying the better part of our all-too human spirit.

*REPRINTED FORM 366 WEIRD MOVIES

INGMAR BERGMAN’S SILENCE OF GOD TRILOGY: THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY (1961)

The first of ‘s scorching “Silence of God” chamber trilogy, Through A Glass Darkly (1961) takes its title from one of St. Paul’s most famous passages: “For now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; but then I shall know even as I am known.” The key to Bergman’s film, and indeed to the trilogy, lies in this passage that is as much about alienation as faith. In some quarters, Bergman’s triptych has been inadequately referred to as a “Trilogy of Faith,” but faith is not tangible. One cannot see, touch, or smell belief, and the Pauline passage resonates with such widespread interior force for honest reasons. We may liken it to the Gospel’s passion drama: the eventual arrest and crucifixion of Christ is almost anti-climatic after the visceral anguish of the Gethsemane garden—the figure engulfed in oppressive silence after communication withdrawn. Paul identifies with the language of a vast chasm.

Through a Glass Darkly felicitously opens with Bach’s second violoncello suite, as Sven Nyqvist’s camera glides over a pearl-like body of water. Soon, a trio of figures emerge from the beach of the desolate Faro island. These are the witnesses: the glacially successful patriarch David (), the empathetic doctor and chaste husband Martin (), and the libidinous brother Minus (Lars Password). We then meet Karin (Harriet Andersson), and although the film becomes about her hour and her face, these men are no mere ciphers. Over the next 24 hours of family vacation, they express dread, lamentation, and pathos as they venerate Karin’s descent.

Karin has been recently released from a mental hospital. She finds a report diagnosing her as schizophrenic among David’s papers, and her dissipation intensifies upon finding herself utilized as a model for daddy’s new novel. The perennial voices in head further impede her mental health. Bergman takes a cue from in consistently choreographing her closeups to those of her witnesses; looking, but not at each other. She’s too caught up. Her obsessions locate God behind the wallpaper and then, tragically, in the attic, where the divine one is revealed to be a big black spider. Meltdown complete, but it’s not that simplistic. Bergman’s portraits are refreshingly mosaic, reminding us that even when he falters, as he occasionally does throughout his oeuvre, he presses on, gifting us well past the point where other filmmakers throw in the proverbial towel.

David’s narcissism is like Martin’s introspection gone fishing, while Minus absorbs Karin’s secrets and veers close to incest. When God is addressed and obsessed over, moral conflicts inevitably rear up.  The search for God is rendered akin to a shipwreck of futility. Casting herself upon an intimate sacrificial altar, Karin (the name was chosen after Bergman’s mother) will prefer the sanctuary of a cell as opposed to facing the silence of God.

Through a Glass Darkly belongs as much to Nyqvist and its cast as it does Bergman (who is hyper-controlled here). Nyqvist composes an encompassing world (magnificently realized by art director P.A. Lindgren) that should be a Promised Land. But familial reconciliation is ultimately defeated by Martin’s understated shoulder sag; Minus’ creativity is hindered by awkward impetuousness; David’s echoing of that Father who knows best but turns his face away; and, above all, Karin’s provocative and frightening rapture. Andersson delivers a performance for the ages, and although she might equal it for Bergman in Cries and Whispers, she would not surpass it.

*reprinted from 366 Weird Movies

INGMAR BERGMAN’S MAGIC FLUTE (1975)

Ingmar Bergman's The Magic Flute advertisementIngmar Bergman The Magic Flute (1975)

The conductor Bruno Walter once suggested that “The Magic Flute,” rather than the unfinished “Requiem,” was Mozart’s true valedictory work. While there have been many great recordings of “The Magic Flute,” Wilhelm Furtwangler’s famous performance stands out for its pronounced mysticism, which justifies Walter’s claim.

Ingmar Bergman The Magic Flute (1975) advertisementIngmar Bergman The Magic Flute 1975 ad

In Milos Forman’s superb but highly fictionalized Amadeus (1984), Mozart (Tom Hulce) dismisses “The Magic Flute” as vaudeville. The jealous but perceptive Salieri corrects Mozart: “It is sublime.” Although “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni” represent Mozart’s greatest achievements in opera, “The Magic Flute” is nearly an equal masterpiece that transcends its “vaudeville” genre. As with audio-only recorded performances, there have been numerous excellent filmed performances. Both David McVicar’s imaginative, yet traditional “Flute” for the Covent Garden and Julie Taymor‘s abridged English language version for the Met predictably dazzle.

Ingmar Bergman The Magic Flute '75Ingmar Bergman The Magic Flute vhs edition

The opera’s fanciful dressings of Masonic symbolism, mythological dragons, sorcerers, bird catchers and a silly plot can, under less perceptive direction, distract from Mozart’s philosophical “higher meaning.” In worst-case scenarios,”The Magic Flute” can be rendered like a Humperdinck “Hansel und Gretel” for the powdered wig audience. The opposite extreme can also be taken. In 2006, Kenneth Branagh produced a predominantly well-received, full-fledged film version (in English), which transported librettist Emanuel Shikaneder’s scenario to the First World War. In 2007, Martin Kusej, always a controversial director, used provocative conducting from Nikolaus Harnoncourt to transform the opera into an amorous, Expressionist nightmare.

Ingmar Bergman directing The Magic Flute

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