Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Bergman's Trilogy of Faith

By David Skolnick

By 1961, Ingmar Bergman had cemented his place among cinema's greatest directors. 1957 saw him direct what many movie fans consider to be his two masterpieces – The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries. They are notable for the themes that would define Bergman to moviegoers: religion, morality and humanity. He takes these themes to an even greater level in the three movies, called the “Trilogy of Faith” and released between 1961 and 1963.

Bergman has stated many times in interviews that he didn't intend for Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and the two follow-up films – Winter Light and The Silence (both released in 1963) – to be considered as a trilogy. But there is nevertheless a definite connection between the films. While there are no characters or storylines carried over from one film to the next, the themes are strikingly similar. Like most of Bergman's films, there are no happy endings and they provide an insight into the human psyche. But the intensity in these three is much greater.

While Bergman addresses religion in several of his movies, these are more about God's silence and the potential horror rather than compassion a higher being would show in the face of tragedy and uncertainty. They also focus more on isolation – the number of actors in each film is minimal as are most of the settings – and the destruction of the family. And for those who equate Bergman with long movies, each film in the Trilogy films is under 100 minutes so you can take your time closely watching while attempting to understand them.

THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY (Svensk Filmindustri/Janus Films, 1961) – Director: Ingmar Bergman. Starring: Harriet Andersson, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Max von Sydow, and Lars Passgard. 89 min.

Bergman does his best to initially fool his viewers. The movie starts off with the four actors emerging from the sea laughing and in high spirits, spending time together on an island. (The movie is the first Bergman filmed on the island of Faro, which later became his home.) But as we quickly discover, things are not all that pleasant. Karin (Andersson) has just left a mental institution where she was treated with shock therapy to cure her of what appears to be schizophrenia, and is reunited with her husband Martin (von Sydow). They are on vacation with her father David (Bjornstrand) and her 17-year-old brother Minus (Passgard). Martin confides to David, a novelist, that there is no cure for Karin. She however believes she's turned a corner.

Martin loves Karin, but she is no longer able to show much emotion, except loyalty, for her husband. David has spent his entire life being emotionally detached from his children, which severely impacts Minus, who is dealing with teenage angst. Minus desires a real relationship with his father, who realizes he's been an absentee parent, but does nothing to change it. In a quiet moment, after giving the three others thoughtless presents from a recent trip, David breaks down in tears alone. Yet he tells his family that he's cutting his vacation short for another job. Also, David is experiencing writer's block and finds his inspiration for a potential novel in the deterioration of his daughter's mental state. He keeps a diary of her condition, which she discovers. She was going to lose touch with reality at some point soon, but her discovery of her father’s journal gets her there a little quicker.

Karin's delusions consume her and she goes into a room where she claims she hears the voices of other people behind wallpaper. She eventually comes to believe that God will reveal Himself to her in that room. The voices keep on talking and Karin confides in her confused and vulnerable brother about what she's experiencing. (While it isn't shown on camera, it's heavily suggested that Karin seduces Minus and the two have sex.)

Karin realizes she cannot live in two worlds and agrees to return to the asylum. But before that the voices call her back to the room telling her God is there. With a helicopter landing just outside the room, and with the windows open, the wind created by the blade opens a door in the room and Karin "sees" God. She screams in horror. After being sedated by Martin, Karin said God came to her as a spider – the “Spider-God” theme is in other Bergman movies – with a cold, calm, stony face who tried to unsuccessfully "penetrate" her.

Martin goes with Karin in the helicopter while David and Minus stay behind stunned by what they've seen. Minus, who has lost touch with reality because of his sister's delusions, wonders if he can go on. Despite what just happened to Karin, Martin speaks of God and love. "I don't know if love is the proof of God's existence or if it's God himself." The discussion brings great comfort to Minus. While some of that is in his father’s words, the mere fact that his father spoke to him is significantly more important. The film ends with a hint of optimism with a somewhat stunned/somewhat happy Minus saying, "Papa spoke to me."

The actors are authentic in their roles, particularly Andersson, who has the most-challenging part. The dialogue, while minimal at times, is insightful. While Karin slips in and out of reality, the film is real and meaningful. 

WINTER LIGHT (Svensk Filmindustri/Janus Films, 1963) – Director: Ingmar Bergman. Starring: Ingrid Thulin, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Gunnel Lindbloom, Max von Sydow, Allan Edwall, Kolbjorn Knudsen, Olof Thunberg, and Elsa Ebbesen. 81 min.

Bjornstrand shines in this film that pulls no punches when it comes to questioning God, and if He exists, why does he remain silent?

Bergman's films aren't light watching, but Winter Light challenges the viewer more than usual. Bjornstrand plays Tomas Ericsson, a pastor at a church whose congregation is getting smaller and smaller. The town seems to be dying, but more central to the film is fewer people are attending church. Tomas questions his own faith and relationship with God, and does a poor job of hiding it from the very parishioners that depend upon him for spiritual solace.

His problems began four years earlier with the death of his wife, the only woman he ever loved. Her death made Tomas reevaluate God to the point of wondering if He exists and if so, why has He left him living a horrible existence.

The parishioners include Marta (Thulin), the local school teacher who is in love with Tomas and has been intimate with him since the passing of his wife; Jonas Persson (von Sydow), who is depressed after learning China is developing an atomic bomb; and Persson's wife, Karin, who is deeply concerned about her husband's mental state.

Marta, an atheist, wants to marry Tomas, but he doesn't love her. She sends him a letter detailing their time together. Rather than have Tomas read it, however, Bergman gives us a close-up of Marta speaking the content of the letter, showing her vulnerability, loneliness and desire for passion in the monologue in a brilliant turn by Thulin. We learn that the pastor became repulsed after she developed a skin condition that initially caused a rash on her hands (stigmata perhaps). It became worse when the unsightly rash covered her entire body. Bergman cuts several times between the pastor and a sculpture of Jesus being crucified, located inside the church, to symbolically show Tomas' suffering. With that in mind, it's not a stretch to compare Tomas' rejection of Marta because of her skin condition as a religious rejection of the human flesh.

Jonas returns to the church seeking answers and understanding from Tomas about the Chinese developing the atomic bomb. But (doubting?) Tomas provides no help as he talks about his lack of faith rather than listening to his parishioner. In this scene, Bergman reintroduces the “Spider-God” from Through a Glass Darkly. Tomas tells Jonas that God used to be one “who loved mankind.” After his wife’s death, He became a “Spider-God, a monster.”

Tomas tells Jonas it is more logical for there to not be God so the atrocities people commit against each other make more sense. If God existed, He wouldn't let all such terrible things happen. Tomas also suggests if God exists, He is silent so there is no reason to put you faith in Him. This advice drives Jonas over the edge. He grabs his shotgun, drives off and kills himself. 

Tomas – with Marta along for the ride – agrees to tell Karin that Jonas is dead. He can’t offer sympathy or empathy (even though his wife died four years prior) and is left asking Karin if she wants to read some Bible verses with him. She rejects the offer.

Tomas, nursing a nasty cold throughout the film (Bjornstrand was actually sick during some of the time this was made), and Marta finally have it out with the latter begging the pastor to marry her so the two can be happy. Tomas is cruel, telling her that he never loved her, never will and she is nothing compared to his wife.

The film ends with Algot (Edwall), a sexton at the church, asking Tomas about Christ's final hours in which he is brutally beaten and crucified. Algot, a hunchback, said that Christ's physical pain didn’t last long. While it was certainly horrible, Algot believes the mental suffering – being rejected by his disciples and then hearing nothing but silence from God in his greatest time of need – was worse. Tomas agrees. Seemingly unaffected, Tomas conducts mass, the only steady activity he has in his miserable existence, even though Marta, who doesn’t believe in God, is the lone parishioner.

This is about an intense a film as you're going to see. At least in Through a Glass Darkly, Minus finally gets to have a conversation with his father that provides him with the tiniest glimmer of hope. There's nothing in this film that's uplifting. It’s depressing, but still fascinating and beautifully filmed. Bjornstrand, who is one of my favorite Bergman film actors, and Thulin are exceptional, particularly when interacting with each other. Bergman has said this was his favorite film he made. I've found others to be better, but it is certainly one of his most compelling and troubling films.

THE SILENCE (Svensk Filmindustri/Janus Films, 1963)  Director: Ingmar Bergman. Starring: Ingrid Thulin, Gunnel Lindbloom, Hakan Jahnberg, Jorgen Lindstrom, and Birger Malmsten. 96 min. 

Thulin is back, this time as Ester, a seriously-ill language translator. She is traveling by train through portions of Europe with her free-spirited and beautiful but insecure sister, Anna (Lindbloom), and the latter's 10-year-old son, Johan (Lindstrom). It is obvious from the first time we see them that the sisters don't like each other, aren't close and resent each other. The first question I had was: "Why are they traveling together?" The answer is never given.

Ester has a major bronchial attack, forcing the trio off the train to allow her to rest in a hotel. The country they are in is on the brink of war. You can tell that by the tanks that appear in a few scenes. The country they are in, likely in Central Europe (though never mentioned by name), and from the appearance of tanks in a few scenes, we can infer that it is on the brink of war. The sisters don’t speak the language, but after a while, Ester is able to communicate with an elderly waiter/bell-hop at the hotel to have him bring her liquor for self-medication and cigarettes.

There is little dialogue in this film. (Well, it is called The Silence.) Some of the dialogue is in the language of the country the three are in with no subtitles for that fictitious language.

The Silence is more sexually explicit than most other Bergman films, and more so than any other he’d directed to that point. The movie includes a few nude scenes with Lindbloom, a couple having sex at a table at a cabaret with Anna a few feet away, and a masturbation scene with Thulin, whose character, we are led to believe, is a closet lesbian. 

The friction between the sisters (Ester is too clingy and judgmental) and boredom leads Anna to leave their hotel suite for a night out. Anna leaves behind her son, who is left to roam the hotel seeking ways to entertain himself. He has fun with a group of carnival troupe of dwarves, but after a few minutes, the main dwarf comes into their hotel room and puts an end to it. It’s sort of like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer after leaving the North Pole playing with other animals until their mother forces Rudy to get lost.

Johan is stuck with Ester, who frightens him likely because of the problems between his mother and aunt. He is loyal to his mother even though she leaves him behind at the hotel. After a while, Ester and Johan become somewhat close.

During one of her first times away from the hotel, Anna wanders into a cabaret with the couple having sex nearby. She also meets a restaurant waiter (Malmsten), who is very interested in her sexually.

When Anna returns alone, Ester accuses her of sleeping around, which was not the case. But she finds the waiter and an empty room at the hotel and has sex, largely because of what Ester said to her. She is also furious that her sister has become close to her son. Anna doesn't want to stay in the foreign country any longer, and the next day she and Johan get on a train heading for home, leaving Ester behind to die alone at the hotel. Before they leave, Ester gives a note to Johan, which he starts to read on the train. Anna takes the note out of her son's hands and reads it. It turns out to be a list of translated words to help the young boy on his journey through foreign countries on his way home.

There isn't much overt religion or references to God in this film. It's more about the lack of spirituality among those who only look to God in their time of desperate need. It took nearly 30 minutes into the film for the word God to be mentioned. As Ester realizes her life is quickly slipping away, she begs God to let her die in her home. But God is silent, not answering her. The characters in this film as well as Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Lights, ask a lot of God. They receive only silence in return.

Bosley Crowther, in his original review of the film in The New York Times, wrote that “what Mr. Bergman is trying to tell us is something each individual viewer must fathom and discover himself. Or, indeed, one may reasonably question whether he is trying to give us anything save a grim philosophical observation of a tragic aspect of life." While Crowther isn't much of a fan, I'm sure if Bergman read the review, he did so with a smile on his face.

To read about Bergman's early works, click here.

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