(A quick aside before I begin this review. I am, to put it lightly, hungover and am worried this review will be garbage because of it. This film is an undeniable masterpiece so I hope I can persevere and make my review do it justice.)
If you were to ask literary snobs if movies could tackle the same grand themes of the best books, their answer would likely be a derisive laugh and a short, “No… just no.” And, 99% of the time, they’d be right. Movies are my preferred art form, but there’s no denying that outside of the absolute best works, their themes can be shallow, repetitive, and not terribly original. But, if there’s one film maker who deserves to stand among the most philosophical storytellers not just of the big screen but of all time, it’s the Swedish master, Ingmar Bergman. Not content to examine the rote, well-trod aspects of human existence, Bergman digs to the core of our existential experience. Questioning not the act of love but love itself, examining not a particular religion but the presence (or lack thereof) of God in our lives, focusing not on the death of one but on the role mortality plays in all our lives, every Bergman film is a mental exercise in critical analysis of our place in the universe. 1961’s Through a Glass Darkly does not disappoint.
Alongside Winter Light and The Silence, the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar-winner Through a Glass Darkly constitutes the first entry in Bergman’s “trilogy of faith.” An unofficial trilogy (in so far as Bergman didn’t realize they made a thematic triptych until after he had made them), the movies (from what I understand because I’ve only seen Through a Glass Darkly so far) constitute a meditation on religious faith and whether humans can feel the presence of God if he exists while also asking a serious question about whether he exists in the first place. And Through a Glass Darkly takes a deeply dysfunctional family as a starting point for the exploration of the idea that we use religious attachment and God’s love as a way to make up for a lack of emotional intimacy and personal affection in our own lives as well as a haunting thesis on the way that we create dark mirrors of ourselves in the people we keep around us.
Described as a “chamber film” (both for its limited locations and characters as well as its use of chamber music in the score), Through a Glass Darkly takes place over the course of twenty four hours on a secluded Swedish island as one bourgeois family is forced to confront its neuroses, dysfunction, and hidden secrets. Karin (Harriett Andersson) has just been released from a mental hospital after a continued battle with schizophrenia. Her husband Martin (The Exorcist‘s Max von Sydow), a compassionate but frustrated doctor is bringing Karin back to her family home where her playwright seventeen year old brother, Minus (Lars Passgard) lives mostly by himself except on those rare occasions when their father David (Gunnar Bjornstrand), a struggling novelist, is home. Thinking that the love and support of her family may be enough to limit the severity of Karin’s schizophrenia, no one expects that the divisions tearing this family apart will have the opposite effect.
Because in this particular Swedish family, the only remotely well-adjusted member is David who is himself suffering from deep sexual frustration and the knowledge that he is slowly but surely losing grasp on his wife. Both Karin and Minus resent their father who is never around, and Minus presents an elaborate play (that he wrote himself and performed in) that is both a welcome home present to his father as well as a not particularly subtle jab at his father’s failure as a writer and a parent. Minus too suffers from deep sexual frustration, what with being seventeen and living on a secluded island by himself with his crazy sister for occasional company. And when his sister finds him reading a Playboy-esque magazine, she teases him nearly to the point of flirtation. And David of course feels guilty about his shortcomings as a father as well as his morbid interest in his daughter’s mental illness considering that his wife ultimately succumbed to the same problem. And, all the while, Karin’s symptoms (which had been in remission) are coming back with a vengeance.
As you can probably tell from that plot description, Through a Glass Darkly is as bleak (if not more so) than his later Persona. Wrestling with mental illness in a disturbingly realistic and un-Hollywood manner, Through a Glass Darkly is a portrait of a family circling the edge of oblivion and it would be a Bergman film if we weren’t brought past the brink by the film’s end. Dealing with incest, frigidity, sexual guilt, our inability to have a meaningful relationship with God (either because he doesn’t exist or because we can’t touch him), and the particular breed of narcissism at the heart of many artists. Bergman has a deserved reputation as an artist fixated on the concept of human suffering, but through an examination of individuals suffering hellish existentialist crises, Bergman offers up a cinematic opportunity to examine the paths that lead us to suffering and a call to avoid falling into these traps.
Much like Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson in Persona, Through a Glass Darkly is heavily defined by an electric performance from its female lead. That Harriet Andersson was not nominated for a Best Actress Oscar at the 1961 Academy Awards seems like a crime (though with a Sophia Loren win for Two Women and plenty of other great nominees, it was a fairly strong year). Sensual and supremely vulnerable, Andersson’s performance was as emotionally naked as the part required, and like Laura Dern in Inland Empire or Natalie Portman in Black Swan, Andersson’s portrayal of a woman past the verge of insanity is just stellar, and alongside Catherine Denueve in Polanski’s Repulsion, it marks an interesting comment on feminine sexual repression. I would be hard-pressed to name another writer-directed that consistently wrote as many excellent parts for female actresses as Ingmar Bergman did.
And the men are just as good. It’s interesting just how much tension and conflict Bergman can create with such small casts whether it’s the two principals of Persona or the only four people we see whatsoever in Through a Glass Darkly. Special mention must go to Gunnar Bjornstrand’s David who is the most morally bankrupt person in the family but it is clear that out of the men, he may be the one that suffers nearly as much as Karin. He not only watched his wife succumb to madness but now he sees his daughter doing the same thing and he wrestles with guilt to his natural reaction to her pain. Lars Passgard’s portrayal of a young man struggling with guilt about his own sexual urges should be terriffically painful for any man who ever went through puberty and fought religious sexual guilt. And, as one of the greatest Swedish film actors of all time, Max Von Sydow’s Martin is a sufficiently pained and sympathetic creation.
Alright, I wrote half of this review yesterday in the throes of a killer hangover and I wrote the rest of it today after my brain was drained by a particularly strenuous exam. So, it’s probably time to draw this to a close. Let me end then by saying that Ingmar Bergman is one of the most rare types of filmmakers. Like Terrence Malick or Kenneth Lonergan, his films’ goals aren’t to entertain. They mean to edify. So, is sitting down for the perfectly trimmed 96 minutes of Through a Glass Darkly the right move if you’re looking for a good time or an entertaining experience? Hell no. It’s miserable in the absolute best sort of way (though not quite as painful as Amour). But, you will leave the film knowing that you just witnessed an important piece of art that had something real to say and, honestly, that is the ideal of any art form. And Bergman was one of the truest masters of his.
Final Score: A+