Each Tuesday Andrew will be going through every available film of Ingmar Bergman.
Having largely abandoned most of my church leanings in the last few years, I've found that I've been struck with a curious obsession with the way clergy is portrayed in film. Quite frankly, they're never human. They are always founts of wisdom and good sense to an insufferable degree or made to be the laughing stock of buffoonery. There's a time and a place for each portrayal but the wave of New Skepticism and Atheism has certainly crept into our entertainment to such a degree that it's getting to be impossible to take clergy seriously.
It's Bergman's complete refusal to follow this line of thought that gives Winter Light an edge and implication more terrifying than anything in The Seventh Seal. In Winter Light, he's asking a very simple question of a priest that has long since lost his luster for the Lutheran faith. That being, if I no longer believe in the God that inspires my job, why am I still here? In light of that question, the film follows him through an unfortunately eventful afternoon that ends with a reconciliation or a deception, depending upon your take of the story.
Of more importance than the story, which is one I respond to greatly, are the performances by Gunnar Bjornstrand and Ingrid Thulin. This is Bergman's most well acted film, and the performances are all the more astonishing given the harsh weather conditions that each of hte participants were asked to endure over the course of filming. But Bjornstrand and Thulin deserve special mention.
I've made my love of Bjornstrand clear since his first appearance, and Thulin has had a number of wonderful performances in other Bergman films. But it's their show to carry. Bjornstrand is asked to play out his crisis of duty and faith almost entirely in silence, and relishes the moments that he is able to vocalize those emotions. His performance is all the more intriguing when you realize that he had the flu all throughout filming, and barely escaped an extended hospital stay to finish the project. Thulin, in contrast, is a more public spectacle of barely restrained lust for life and for Bjornstrand's unfortunate priest, Tomas. This is tempered by her skin condition, which causes her great pain, and that anguish plays out in her eyes and her smile.
Those performances are locked in a duel over Tomas' place in the little village. He caters to a slowly diminishing parish of people that find that God has less and less a place in their lives. On this day, the fisherman Jonas (Max von Sydow) visits Tomas with his fear of nuclear annihilation and waning faith in the voice of God. Jonas has been contemplating suicide, and needs comfort and words of wisdom to restore his faith in life. However, as we see with Tomas' dealings with Marta (Thulin), he is unprepared to help him in any meaningful way.
Tomas is cold to all people, and has long since lost the way to convey the message of Jesus into one that gives others hope. He shuns all affection, deflects Marta's attempts to help and console him, and stands alone contemplating the coldness of existence. The only bright spot and, truly, the only hope in the movie comes from a crippled man named Algot (Allan Edwall) who truly lives his life by Jesus' words and questions the gospels with a skepticism that only the joyfully devout can.
This is one of those films where, if you need endless distraction, "nothing much happens". It's more concerned about the implications of religious faith in an era where we stand capable of annihilating ourselves off of the planet on a bad day. More so than that, it looks at it entirely on the human level of one who was devout, one who never believed, and one who still feels the passion of the holy spirit flowing through him. It looks, unblinkingly, at what death means in a world that seems to have lost all sense, and wonders how we might find the strength to continue on.
Those twists and turns, intricately subtle as they are, I must leave for you to discover because I treasure this Bergman film amongst almost all others. There are three films of his that I think are nearly perfect expressions of the human condition, which was his specialty, and Winter Light is amongst them. Even beyond the spectacular acting the other parts of the film were firing at an absurdly high level of quality.
Sven Nyvist's photography has never been more desolate. The light passes slowly through the film and offers no consolation or warmth. Instead it glides slowly and coldly throughout the corridors of the church and when we have the opportunity to partake in an outdoor scene he light provides even less comfort. This is all accentuated by Bergman's masterful manipulation of the sound track. In Through A Glass Darkly we ocassionally got blasts of that beautiful cello music at the more meotional moments. Bergman offers no such consolations here. Instead we're treated to the creeks and cracking of the church walls and decorum. Then in a particularly chilly incident, when Tomas is asked to identify a body, we hear nothing but the sound of the rushing creek.
Above all, Tomas is completely human. When we're grappling with what it means to exists, and by extension what it means to actually be human, our thoughts will usually turn to death. Tomas' are no different, wondering why the suffering of others must be made to have a point if there is no God to console us at the end. Forgetting all the while that, despite some problems in his life, he has not had to face the same hardships as those around him.
As a Bergman archetype he is superb, questioning religion while still trying to extract the small comforts from it. As an audience surrogate he is empathetic, making his own mistakes while trying to become a better person. He is one of the truly great creations in all of Bergman's films, appearing in a movie that is stripped of almost all theatricality and artifice.
Which, in the end, may be all that we have. Tomas decides to go through with his sermon in the end, even though he seems to be preaching to an empty choir. Is this a pessimistic and robotic approach to a job he no longer cares about? Or is it a return to embrace a hope that someone, anyone, may be listening to his words? Bergman has it both ways, and that tension drives one of the greatest films that he ever made.
Next week, I'll be delving into the expressionistic bleakness of The Silence. See you then!