Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Winter Light

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: Eurovisions (Sweden) / In category: 2 of 10 / Overall: 12 of 100

‘Winter Light’ is the second title in Ingmar Bergman’s loosely connected “trilogy on faith”. Free from the psycho-drama of the first film, ‘Through a Glass Darkly’, the nihilistic despair of the concluding episode ‘The Silence’ and the incestuous subtext of both of them, ‘Winter Light’ is nonetheless a shattering, profound and deeply personal work; arguably the essential work in the trilogy not only in that it connects the films that bookend it but because it is the only film in a trilogy exploring faith which has a man of the cloth as its main character.

The disturbed heroine of ‘Through a Glass Darkly’ makes reference to a “spider god” during her mental turmoil. The phrase recurs in ‘Winter Light’ in a more contemplative context as Pastor Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Bjornstrand) addresses his crisis of faith. Unable to provide spiritual comfort or assuage the doubts of his flock, Tomas goes through the motions as he presides over Sunday morning service and evensong. In his occasional candid moments, he names the thing that constitutes his greatest agony: God’s silence.

Thus the title of the concluding film. ‘The Silence’ is a feature-length metaphor for this dispiriting concept. ‘The Silence’ is one of the most depressing films I’ve ever seen. It makes your average Andrei Tarkovsky or Bela Tarr opus look like an Ealing comedy.

‘Winter Light’ isn’t much happier. It takes place during a single day, a Sunday. The opening sequence has Tomas conducts the morning service. The church is half empty. Frederik Blom (Olof Thunberg), the organist, checks his watch and almost misses his cue when Tomas concludes his sermon; Algot Frovik (Allan Edwall), the sexton, suffers through the service, crippled, hunched and in pain; the elderly Magdalena (Elsa Ebbesen) mumbles the responses to the prayers and warbles her way off-key through the hymns; heavily pregnant Karin Persson (Gunnel Lindblom) accompanies her depressed and uncommunicative husband Jonas (Max von Sydow) and encourages him to “talk it out” with Tomas after the service; Knut Aronsson (Kolbjorn Knudsen) splutters his way through the hymns as if the words – pious and by rote – have become stuck in his throat; and schoolteacher Marta Lundberg (Ingrid Thulin) carries a torch for Tomas and suppresses a lack of belief in God as long as she can be close to him.

During the course of this single day, Tomas will reject Marta’s love, be faced with one of his flock questioning of Christ’s suffering, and deal with the aftermath of another’s suicide. He will also be confronted with the accusation that his erstwhile passion in his vocation owed more to his late wife’s love than God’s.

‘Winter Light’ opens with Sunday morning service, at which attendance barely scrapes double figures. It concludes with evensong, at which only Frederik, Algot and Marta are present. Frederik and Algot because they are required to be, Marta despite Tomas’s rejection of her. In spiritual terms, his church is empty. Tomas begins the service nonetheless.

It is to his eternal credit that Bergman the director shoots every scene with complete detachment, just as Bergman the writer employs an observation approach. In both incarnations, Bergman acts not as a commentator or a moralist, but as a witness. He simply observes and records. Reports back. He imbues the accoutrements of communion with as much gravitas as the empty pews and cold architecture of the church. With the exception of a scene in which a character reads a letter and Bergman cuts to a non-naturalistic close-up of the sender reciting the contents of said letter, ‘Winter Light’ is possessed of enough austere observationalism to almost pass as a documentary.

And this is the key to Bergman’s approach to the material. The meaning is in the silences, in the ellipses, in what is unspoken. Is ‘Winter Light’ about God’s silence, or do the silences present spaces in which the doubter can find faith, the questioner receive answers and the helpless benefit from guidance? Is an empty church a symbol of the failure of religion, or less cluttered so that the one person whose belief is in the reckoning can engage with their deepest and darkest conflicts? When Tomas, being driven back to the church for evensong, uses the delay in the barrier at a railway crossing blocking the road to admit that he entered the seminary because of his parents’ wishes, is it symbolic of the path he took being adumbrated, or is the eventual lifting of the barrier and his continued journey the more appropriate metaphor?

As an atheist, I find concatenation in much of ‘Winter Light’ to a rejection of religion. But in Bergman’s refusal to call it either way – and in the rigidly ambiguous final scene in which Tomas, preaching to an all but empty church, faces the camera in tight close-up and speaks words in praise of God – Tomas’s internal struggle for belief finds an onscreen corollary in which the last few seconds before the screen fades to black could equally denote despair or redemption.


The Film Connoisseur said...

When filmmakers adress religion, they often times leave things in an ambiguous note.

Maybe they themselves dont believe any of it, but they sure as hell arent going to be the ones to say it.

They usually put both sides of the tale, the believer and the non believer, and they leave the audience to decide for themselves. The braver ones simply go out and say it: "religion is not neccesary, we can live without it, its more evil then good" Fellini did this a lot. Fellini's films were brave in this sense. Like in Cabiria.

I had no idea Bergman had done these movies based on the theme of faith. Its my favorite theme, the exploration of religion as a phenomenon. I love it when filmmakers arent afraid to make this the theme of their movies, since so many movies seldom do it.

Its a touchy subject for some, but not me, I love to chat about it! Im shooting a movie soon (my next masterpiece) and Im talking all about this, religion, is it real or not? Should we believe in it? Is it good for something? Can we just use our own heads to think things over?

Thanks for this review Neil, Ill be checking these movies out.

I found this a bit shocking while reading your review:

"The Silence’ is one of the most depressing films I’ve ever seen. It makes your average Andrei Tarkovsky or Bela Tarr opus look like an Ealing comedy"

I mean, damn, thats saying a lot!

Bryce Wilson said...

Great write up Neil. These are some of Bergman's most difficult films to write about, and you did a commendable job.

I don't know about you, but I'm really looking forward to Tarr's remake of The Lavendar Hill Mob.

Neil Fulwood said...

Francisco - I highly recommend you check out Bergman's trilogy on faith. 'Winter Light', the middle film, is the most literal in that it debates the nature of faith from the perspective of a reverend. The first film, 'Through a Glass Darkly', addresses the subject in a more oblique manner but is thought-provoking and contains some powerful performances. The last film, 'The Silence', is a sustained metaphor for the concept of God's silence and I'll say it again: it's a determinedly downbeat and depressing film. It's cautiously recommended in context of the two films that precede it.

Bryce - I'd pay to see Bela Tarr remake any of the Ealing comedies. I can imagine 'The Titfield Thunderbolt' being five hours long and consisting of thirty ten-minute takes, mostly of rusting railway tracks that stretch into the distance along which the train never arrives.