Faith isn't something that comes easy to me. When I was a kid, it seemed like God was talking to me all of the time. As I got older, that voice slowly faded and was replaced with gripping cynicism and knowledge on how our brains worked. Slowly what was a strong desire to live for an ideal that transcended what I live through here became a dull memory of how I used to be happy even when I was alone. Yes, I felt diminished as I lost my faith.
But then a few realizations came to me. Everyone build reality on the basis of how they live and learn, and the emotions that I felt when I watch a particularly transcendent movie or hear the perfect song really weren't too different from the moments that I felt when God was talking to me. I miss faith, I still love seeing practitioners in an act where they are holding themselves open to something higher, and I have to admit that my religion is film now. But when I write about a movie that touched me so deeply that I can't help but cry out of pure bliss, is it really that different from someone who goes to church to pray? I don't think so, and neither does Ingmar Bergman.
There are many things that Fanny and Alexander is about, and the idea that film as a religion is one of them. Yes it's about death, despair, sexual denial, existential frustration and hopelessness but it's about so much more than that. This film is an exultant celebration of what it means to be a believer in something, anything, that enriches the lives of others. But it is also about the reverse of that ideal and shows those who use ideologies as a means of controlling others.
Fanny and Alexander details a few years in the lives of the Ekdahl family. We watch as Oscar Ekdahl (Allan Edwall), the patriarch of both his family and theater troupe, falls to an illness and dies. His wife, Emile (Ewa Froling), struggles to continue on and falls in love with the local Bishop Edvard (Jan Malmsjo). Edvard has a cruel streak that he willingly inflicts on poor Alexander (Bertil Guve) while his poor sister Fanny (Pernilla Alwin) looks on. Emille, Fanny and Alexander all endure the cruelty of Edvard until the machinations of the noble Rabbi Isak Jacobi (Erland Josephson) retrieve the children from Edvard's grasp. Emille follows, but not after a certain bit of cosmic coincidence allows her to escape. All are reunited in a bright and beautiful Ekdahl family dinner, and Alexander learns that all that is perceived here may not be all there is.
It is the happiest film that Bergman ever directed, one intended to be his swan song before he retired as a director, surpassing even Smiles of a Summer Night in pure joy. Fanny and Alexander is also his most autobiographical and it should come as no surprise that young Bertil Guve, who plays Alexander, is a dead ringer for the young, lanky, dark haired and intensely focused Ingmar Bergman. This is Bergman's past, presented nakedly as he remembers, and points towards a future that he did not anticipate.
The religious iconography is plentiful in the film and undergoes a transformation as Bergman reveals to us that his faith is in film. In the beginning the religious imagery is strong and accepted as wise as Alexander enteres into religious plays and accepts the beauty and warmth of faith with no question. The introduction of Edvard perverts this immensely with a man taking what should be beautiful and turning it into something twisted so that he can attain a little bit of power and control with his time on earth.
Later on the religious imagery undergoes a fascinating metamorphosis. When Alexander is safe, away from Edvard in the hands of the Bishop, he meets two peculiar characters. The first, Aron (Mats Bergman), is an Atheist puppeteer who scares Alexander into believing in God and then disproving his existence in the same moment. The second, Ismael (Stina Ekbald), may be an angel who is able to influence events in a way that is not entirely understandable by Alexander or any of the other characters in the film.
At this point the dilapidated Jesus statues and decaying crosses, a common sight after the introduction of Edvard, become integrated more within the framework of each shot. Finally, once Alexander is reunited with his family there is no discord between faith and environment and he rustles off to sleep with words of infinite reassurance...
“Time and space do not exist. On a flimsy framework of reality the imagination spins, weaving new patterns.”
Visually, Bergman reinforces this notion that he is acting out with his players throughout the entirety of Fanny and Alexander. The ultimate thesis of his career, which he intended this film to be, is that we are not facing an existential bleakness that cannot be confronted. Instead we are able to craft hope, be it in the arms of someone else or, more appropriately, in an artistic form for other people.
Many times throughout Fanny and Alexander he reinforces the notion that faith is held up through the arts. In the beginning he shows this with the plays that the Ekdahl's theater troupe puts on. Towards the end he is showing this through the puppetry of Aron, a self-proclaimed Atheist. Is Bergman saying that there is a God in these moments? Not in the slightest, but he is saying that there is a thread that connects us all through the works of art that we live and breathe through. It's something that no one can contain, no matter the medium, and some will express it differently than others.
Bergman came to his faith through film, and I find that I have been doing the same for many years.
Technically, Fanny and Alexander is nearly without peer. Bergman once again worked with Sven Nykvist to create this world and ushered in a new wave of vibrant colors and textures. The acting is phenomenal as well, but serves more to hold up Bergman's thesis about theater and faith than offer room for any individual performance to shine. This is not to say that anyone does a bad job, without any one player the film would not work nearly as well as it does.
A final note about Fanny and Alexander - do not, under any circumstances, watch the theatrical version. This is far different than Scenes From A Marriage where the television and theatrical versions provide different experiences. The television version of Fanny and Alexander presents an incomplete one, with many wonderful characters and plot threads left dangling as the film comes to a finish. They all add to Bergman's religion, and deserve to be seen as he first intended. So please, watch the television version instead of the theatrical one.
I'm looking at my shelf of Bergman and can hardly believe that my time with his movies is nearly coming to an end. Next week I'll be looking at what actually turned out to be his last movie, Saraband.