(A quick aside before I begin my review proper. We’re entering another “A+” heavy block after only two last time around. This will be number four for this block but I stand by every single one of these scores. This is partially attributable to the fact that I’m watching all of Ingmar Bergment’s Trilogy of Faith, and as of this review, two out of three of those films have gotten perfect marks. So, I haven’t suddenly lost my critical faculties. I’m just watching a lot of great films.)
Though I am now what Bertrand Russell called a “teapot agnostic,” I was a deeply religious child and teenager. But, and apologies to anyone this statement offends, religion caused me nothing but psychological torment and crippling neuroses. Beyond the deeper metaphysical questions (such as the Alpha and Omega or the concept of an eternal afterlife) that I would drive myself physically ill pondering, the Christian proscriptions towards sexual behavior nearly tore me to pieces during puberty. Although I always wanted to believe in God more than I actually did (more on that and how this whole rant relates to this film soon. I promise.), I didn’t finally give up on religion until I realized how insane it was that I was being consumed by self-loathing every time I was physically intimate with a girl I wasn’t even having sex with. Yet, according to Christianity, I was supposed to feel guilty for this, and I finally called bullshit.
Perhaps, then, it’s his obsession with religious and sexual guilt that has drawn me so intensely to Ingmar Bergman (Persona). Bergman was the son of a strict Lutheran minister, and in every one of his films that I’ve ever seen, the battle between one’s own sexual urges and the external forces of religious coercion is omnipresent (among other bleak themes such as insanity and heartbreak). Bergman dwelled on these issues and exorcised his personal demons (and the overwhelming guilt of his religious upbringing) through his art, and for anyone who’s ever been consumed by these same themes, his films are required viewing (look no further than Woody Allen who battled the same existentialist themes throughout all of his best works).
And that theme of the nature of God and the suffering that man foists upon itself in order to hear the call and logic of a non-existent God has never been more emphasized in Bergman’s work than in his (apocryphally termed) “Trilogy of Faith.” The first film, Through a Glass Darkly dealt with the ordinary man’s inability to perceive or communicate with God. The only individual in the cast who ever sensed God’s presence was a schizophrenic young woman who then saw him as a malevolent spider god. And, the film became a commentary on how we seek the affection of God when we are unable to receive it from the people closest to us. The bleak and forceful Winter Light expands that then to a study of a man, whose job requires being a conduit for God’s voice encountering instead God’s silence.
Gunnar Bjornstrand plays the emotionally handicapped pastor, Tomas Ericsson. Holding sway over a run-down parish where only a handful of parishioners show up for Sunday Mass, Tomas’s heart isn’t in the clergy anymore and hasn’t been for years and years. At his empty mass, one of the church-goers is an outspoken atheist, Marta Lundberg (Ingrid Thulin), who only attends hoping that afterwards she can gain the affection of the widower pastor, who has consistently spurned her advances. Another two are a married couple who haven’t been to church in ages but only made it to this session because the husband is suffering in dread fear of a nuclear holocaust. The organ-player constantly checks his watch so that he can leave, and a child sleeps in the pews and licks a chair when he isn’t unconscious. Tomas’s temple is not healthy.
After the mass, Tomas attempts to counsel the terrified Jonas Persson (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close‘s Max von Sydow) are catastrophic as Tomas is experiencing a massive crisis of faith himself. Since his wife’s death, Tomas has received nothing but silence from God and in a nihilistic conversation with Jonas, he ponders if it was ever there. These are not the comforting words that the emotionally fragile Jonas needed to hear and disaster quickly follows. Tomas also rejects the loving and desperately lonely Marta again and again as she only tries to care for him and despite the obvious fact that he cares for her. Tomas can not hear the voice of God, and in his anger and self-loathing, he takes it out on the most vulnerable around him who need his guidance and care.
With a handful of conversations in Winter Light, Ingmar Bergman does more to pierce the veil of suffering that religion (and the logical doubt caused by its existence) inflicts on its practitioners than any book or academic piece I’ve ever read. The disastrous counseling session between Tomas and Jonas speaks to the dangers of investing all of one’s hopes in the possibility that religion has answers to our most dramatic life problems. Marta writes Tomas a letter and in a beautifully handled long-take, we get the clearest defense of her atheist position in the face of the pain it causes Tomas. And later on, in a schoolhouse, Tomas is in the midst of horrendous pain for playing a role in a specific tragedy and he lashes out at the innocent Marta with as much as force as he can muster showing the hypocrisy of his faith.
From a technical perspective, this is one of Bergman’s least complex films. The camerawork is stark and unpretentious (not that I don’t love the dizzying visual wizardry of Bergman films like Persona) and that fits with the film’s astoundingly somber tone. The cinematography is straight-forward but never once lets you escape the emotional torment these Swedes find themselves in. Particularly, during the five minute long shot of Marta reading her letter, you are made intimately aware of how much she’s hurting (achieved in no small part through Ingrid Thulin’s emotionally grueling performance).
And, like all Bergman films, the performances are something to be treasured. Even more than his beleaguered David in Through a Glass Darkly, Gunnar Bjornstrand turns Tomas into a haunted and haunting figure. The movie begins during the lengthy closing of Mass at Tomas’s parish, and from the get go, Bjornstrand makes it clear that Tomas’s heart isn’t in this anymore. And as the very definition of his existence continues to fall more rapidly apart as the film progresses, Bjornstrand radiates the horrific torment destroying this figure whose life has no clear meaning anymore.
And ingrid Thulin’s Marta is one of the most devastating portrayals of female desperation this side of Rachel, Rachel or Women in Love. Although Marta infatuation with Tomas borders on the pathetic (any self-respecting woman would have given up on such a cold and callous man years ago), the aging school marm sees the hopes for her emotional salvation in this wounded man. And Thulin captures the breadth of her dreams, desires, and heartbreak. Max von Sydow isn’t in the film for very long, but his brief reunion with his Through a Glass Darkly co-star was the scene that catapulted this scene towards the masterful realm that it then never left.
In the film’s closing moments, a nearly catatonic Tomas arrives for his final mass of the day to a church completely empty of anyone other than his atheist admirer, the drunk organ player, and the crippled sexton. As Tomas is preparing his sermon, the sexton speaks with Tomas about Christ’s Passion, i.e. the last hours of his life. And the sexton wonders if perhaps we haven’t overvalued Christ’s physical suffering over his emotional suffering from the betrayal and abandonment of his disciples and God himself when he’s on the cross and God won’t answer his pleas. If you understand what makes that so powerful within the context of this film, do yourself a favor and watch another masterpiece from one of the greatest filmmakers to ever live.
Final Score: A+